Foodborne botulism is a serious health concern, causing life-threatening illness and long-term health effects. In the UK regulators, food companies and researchers have come together to implement robust systems that make outbreaks extremely rare, with no reported deaths for over a decade. In China, however, the incidence of foodborne botulism is much higher and causes a number of deaths.
Possible sources of foodborne botulism are foods containing mushrooms and aquatic products, which are major dietary components in China. However, there hasn't been an extensive investigation into the precise causes of these botulism outbreaks. The rapid pace of China's development is also driving changes in food production and consumption. With funding from the BBSRC's China Partnering Award scheme, the IFR collaborated with the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences (SAAS) and Shanghai Ocean University (SHOU) Shanghai Ocean University (SHOU) , to investigate mushrooms as a possible source of botulism.
Pradeep Malakar, Mike Peck and Gary Barker from the IFR led an initial workshop in Shanghai in 2008, focusing on the risk of foodborne botulism. Part of the workshop involved planning a survey for determining the natural contamination of mushrooms produced in China with spores of C. botulinum. This survey used protocols developed at the IFR, and Dr Zengtao Xing from SAAS and Dr Zhao Yong from SHOU received training at IFR on handling of anaerobic bacteria. This work was recently published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology.
China Partnering Awards provide funding to encourage partnerships between UK and overseas laboratories, including the exchange of scientists, particularly early career scientists. Activities funded by these awards add extra value to on-going BBSRC science and help promote new collaborations.
Dr Pradeep Malakar, recipient of a BBSRC China Partnership Award that has led to closer links in the area of food safety.
Other activities supported by the China Partnering Award have been based around Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA), an area of expertise at the IFR. QMRA involves estimating the risks to human health from microbial pathogens in the food chain and in 2009 the IFR signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the SAAS to enable additional closer scientific collaborations in this area. IFR scientists delivered graduate lectures and seminars to students and Dr Malakar has been awarded a Visiting Professorship at SHOU.
A prestigious Oriental Scholar Award from the Shanghai Department of Education is allowing Dr Malakar to develop further scientific collaborations with academic institutions in Shanghai on food safety research. Miss Zhao Xiaoyan, a scientist from SAAS, also visited the IFR in 2010 for training in QMRA, and As well as working with fellow scientists to improve teaching and training in QMRA and food safety, the IFR, through the China Partnering Award, has involved the food industry and regulatory authorities in the growing UK-China cooperation.
In 2011 Dr Malakar arranged a meeting between Chinese academics, Unilever Research Shanghai and the Shanghai Food and Drug Administration (ShFDA). The IFR also hosted visits from ShFDA to the UK, allowing them to meet their counterparts from the UK's Food Standards Agency and other UK researchers specialising in QMRA.
This China Partnering Award, awarded to Dr Pradeep Malakar in 2008, has fostered strong UK-China collaborations in food safety research, also spanning decision making and industrial partners, and it is hoped this will help future UK-China collaborations and shared activities. Already, as a direct result of the China Partnership Award, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsored a visit by Dr Malakar to Guangdong Province in Southern China, as well as a return visit by the Guangdong Department of Health to the IFR in 2012.
In March 2013 a food safety and QMRA workshop was held in Guangdong with the South China Ministry of Health organised by Dr Malakar and involving scientists from the IFR. Following this workshop, Dr Xiaoyu Song also spent time at the IFR in summer 2013. She is a senior scientist from the China National Center for Food Safety Risk Assessment (CFSA), an agency of the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) of the People's Republic of China. CFSA provides advice and technical support to NHFPC on food safety risk assessment, surveillance, alert, risk communication and food safety standards.
These activities show the value attached to the collaborations initiated by the partnership award.
Dr Pradeep Malakar has benefitted, personally and professionally from the BBSRC China Partnership Award. "The China Partnership Award has allowed me to operate efficiently in an environment, where patience, cultural sensitivity and direct personal relationships are prerequisites," said Dr Malakar.
"Closer scientific collaboration between the UK and China is a long term project and at the IFR we aim to be the lead UK partner for scientists in China intending to pursue research in QMRA."
Future collaborations are now planned for research on the safety of seafood in China. In particular, they will be aimed at developing a better understanding of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, the bacterial pathogen causing significant food poisoning in Southern China. Most of the seafood in the UK is imported and from a food security perspective, consumers need to have access at all times to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Food safety events in the food chain can disrupt supply. Dr Malakar was appointed as a supervisor for Miss Xiaoyang Tang, a PhD student studying the growth and survival of this seafood pathogen, and there is considerable scope for expertise in UK and China to collaborate to tackle this problem.