Visit to the Institute of Food Research,
14 January 2003
The Science and Technology Select Committee
visited the Institute of Food Research on 14 January 2003. The
note of part of that visit is included as it informed discussion
of the Sub-Committee when deliberating about the Fighting Infection
Members present were Baroness Emerton, Lord
Oxburgh, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and Baroness Walmsley.
They were accompanied by Mary Robertson, Clerk to the Select Committee,
Julius Weinberg, Specialist Adviser and Rebecca Neal, Clerk to
Sub-Committee on Fighting Infection.
The Committee were met by Catherine Reynolds,
Head of Communications at the Institute of Food Research (IFR).
The Committee were then welcomed by Professor Alastair Robertson,
Director of the IFR, who explained the background and purpose
of the IFR. Dr Robertson informed the Committee that approximately
60 per cent of the IFR's funding came from the Biotechnology and
Biological Sciences Research Council: the other 40 per cent had
to be sought commercially. The IFR had a wide remit, and worked
with people all across the scientific community, including academics,
industry, policy-makers, and the media. A great deal of work was
done to try to get messages across to the public. Staff from the
IFR gave presentations in places like schools and agricultural
shows, and gave interviews to journalists, all with very positive
The IFR had a very practical approach, realising
that scientific research wouldn't be any use if its lessons could
not be translated to the market place. The IFR kept close links
with the agricultural industry and the retailing sector. The IFR's
strategy was to research ways in which food could keep people
healthy in the first place, rather than to try to people who were
already ill. Consumers were also kept firmly in mind. Again, there
was no point in producing wonderful science if at the end of the
day people did not find that the recommended diet was palatable.
Food had to be nice or people wouldn't eat it.
Dr Robertson also explained that there were
sound economic reasons why the work of the IFR was important.
Food-related diseases cost billions of pounds to treat.
Over lunch, Professor Robertson explained that
to a large extent, the IFR set its own agenda. Each year, the
Director of the IFR presented a business plan to the BBSRC and
to the governing body (which was made up of academics, industrialists
and representatives from the BBSRC). Having agreed the business
plan, the BBSRC measured the performance of the IFR, but they
were more interested in the quality of the scientific research
and the extent to which knowledge was transferred to others than
in what the IFR chose to focus on.
There was a general discussion about the interdisciplinary
nature of the IFR's work. Collaboration with some sciences was
good, but with medical sciences, for example, it was less good.
This was in part because of the way funding was arranged. Competition
for funds with other research councils (such as the MRC) sharpened
the science in certain narrow areas, but this very same competition
prevented research from meshing properly across some disciplines.
Scientists at the IFR clearly felt there was a need for a national
nutritional strategysomething which did not at present
exist. In order for such a strategy to be drawn up, there would
need to be pressure from above (from politicians and policy-makers)
as well as from scientists, industrialists and retailers.
Professor Gasson gave a presentation explaining
that food poisoning was a significant cause of illness, which
could cause serious disease, permanent disability or even death,
and which imposed a significant cost on the economy. Cases of
salmonella had dropped significantly, but salmonella still killed
more people in the UK each year than any other type of food poisoning.
Salmonella, Campylobacter and E.coli were the priority targets
for the Food Safety Division.
As well as researching into these pathogens,
the Food Safety Division also undertook work to evaluate novel
foods including genetically modified food. For example, the Unit
evaluated the risk of transgenic DNA transfer, and undertook molecular
profiling to assess the robustness of new foods. The Division
also had a responsibility to consider consumer perception, attitudes
and behaviour in relation to these matters, and be proactive in
communicating to the public any new information which they needed
Dr Hinton then described his work on salmonella.
His objective was to understand how bugs like salmonella made
people ill, given that the gut is surrounded by macrophage cells
which are supposed to stop pathogens from penetrating any further.
The answer may be related to the genes which are switched on and
off during salmonella infection of the macrophage. Dr Hinton explained
that having the whole genome sequences for food-borne pathogens
had revolutionised research into food poisoning. Salmonella has
4,594 genes. A new technology called "macroarrays",
allows scientists to study all of these genes simultaneously.
Thus research which would previously have taken years of comparative
testing can be done very quickly indeed.
Dr Wells then described his research into campylobacter.
Cases of campylobacter were soaringover 170,000 cases were
reported in 2000 (out of which 86 people died). Little was known
about this bug, and part of the research strategy was simply to
find out more about ithow it is transmitted, how it grows
and survives and what its pathogenesis is. To find answers to
these questions, Dr Wells was also using macroarrays to investigate
the genetic diversity of the pathogen, in order to correlate strain
properties with specific genetic factors (such as virulence) and
to gain new insights into the epidemiology of campylobacter infections.
As well as macroarrays, Dr Wells was also using
proteomics, where spots on a silver screen correspond to specific
proteins expressed under different conditions. The proteins expressed
varied according to the expression of regulatory genes. This in
turn identified the genes which might represent new targets for
The Committee then visited laboratories where
work was being done using proteomics and macroarrays. Dr Hinton
demonstrated the macroarray equipment, and Dr Fran Mulholland
explained the equipment used in proteomics.
Dr Mills spoke to the Committee about the multi-disciplinary
nature of food science. Scientists really had to understand food
to be able to predict such things as where pathogens will grow.
Computing power had revolutionised food science in this regard.
Nevertheless, many mysteries remained. One example was the growing
allergy to peanuts. Why should it be peanuts? What was it about
the peanut that produced this effect? In looking at this kind
of question, it was necessary to look outside food science and
look at people's lifestyles, and this was where Dr Lambert's work