Research – IFST – Building biofilm knowhow.


Mark Richardson outlines the aims and activities of the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) and explains why the occurrence of foodborne pathogens in biofilms is a major concern.

The National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC) is still a relatively young organisation but we are proud of what we have achieved since our formation in late 2017. We were funded through UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) by BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), Innovate UK and the Hartree Centre as an Innovation Knowledge Centre (IKC) to support and connect the biofilm community in industry and academia.

Foodborne pathogens within biofilms

Biofilms are communities of microorganisms (often multiple species) within an extracellular matrix associated with a surface; this allows them to communicate and collectively behave very differently to individual organisms. Biofilms have a role to play across multiple industrial sectors in terms of both the problems they present and opportunities they offer. In respect to human health and food they can, for example, potentiate the emergence of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, antiseptics and disinfectants. From farm to fork they have a role to play in the health of soils, plants and animals; in addition they impact on food processing and then subsequently on supply chain safety (particularly for ready to eat or chilled produce).

For example, Listeria monocytogenes, a pathogenic bacterium found in moist environments, soil, water, decaying vegetation and animals, can survive and even grow under refrigeration and other food preservation measures. It can cause food poisoning if ingested and due to the severity of infection and high case fatality rate, listeriosis is an important public health concern. A high level of vigilance is maintained in food manufacturing environments for the occurrence of this organism. There were 142 cases of food borne listeriosis in the UK in 2019 resulting in 23 deaths plus eight miscarriages or stillbirths.

Listeria monocytogenes typifies the problems that biofilm modality imparts to organisms in that when it grows within a biofilm, it is very difficult to detect, remove and destroy. When measures relating to its control go wrong, this can lead to significant human health issues, adverse impacts on the food sector’s reputation and significant economic costs. As recently as July 2021, Tyson Foods in the USA recalled nationally almost 4100 tonnes of ready-to-eat chicken products after finding they may have been contaminated with Listeria. The US Department of Agriculture announced the recall a month after two consumers reported falling ill with listeriosis. Further investigation revealed one death.

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