Genomics set to change the future of food safety

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

'Genomics can bring an opportunity to unlock a lot of insights'
'Genomics can bring an opportunity to unlock a lot of insights'

Related tags Dna Food standards agency

Scientific advances in the use of genomics – the study of DNA within organisms and application of DNA sequencing – has been agreed as the top of five strategic priorities for action identified by the committee which advises the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on microbiological safety risks.

The next most important priority agreed by the Advisory Committee of the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF) at a meeting in London last week related to changes in the food system. This covers everything from the implications of increasing interest in insects as food and feed, to the impact of increasing online purchases on food safety.

The other three priorities, in descending order, were: the impact of climate change on foodborne disease; societal changes, such as the use of social media to gather information and communicate about food safety risks; and the dangers of antimicrobial resistance in the food supply chain.

Campylobacter in the food chain

It was also agreed that the high incidence of campylobacter in chicken should remain a priority for risk assessment advice, since it remains the number one concern of the FSA. The ACMSF also agreed to revisit this subject as much had changed in the 10 years since it published its last report on campylobacter in the food chain.

Genomics is a discipline in genetics that applies recombinant DNA, DNA sequencing methods, and bioinformatics to sequence, assemble, and analyse the function and structure of genomes (the complete set of DNA within a single cell of an organism).

However, it also covers fields of study such as: proteomics, the study of proteins, their structures and functions; and metabolomics, which investigates the set of metabolites (digestion products) present within an organism, cell, or tissue.

In a horizon scanning report presented to the ACMSF meeting, concerns were expressed that Public Health England (PHE) was in the process of moving towards whole genome sequencing (WGS) for salmonella investigations. A move to WGS would mean that, at some point, PHE would stop doing phenotyping, serotyping and phage typing, which would prevent it from identifying individual strains of bacteria involved in food poisoning outbreaks.

Whole genome sequencing

While WGS had potential benefits, said the report, the danger was that it would make comparisons of data between new food poisoning outbreaks and those of the past more difficult.

However, ACMSF committee member Alec Kyriakides, head of product quality, safety and supplier performance at Sainsbury, remarked that the comments in the report about genomics sounded too negative and failed to identify the strengths of WGS. “Genomics can bring an opportunity to unlock a lot of insights,” ​he said.

The ACMSF also agreed to work more closely with other scientific advisory committees in areas where their remits overlapped.

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