Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

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 inquiry.

  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 results.

  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 strategy—something 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 to know.

  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 soaring—over 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 it—how 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 drug development.


  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 came in.

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