Food safety research

A summary of our current food safety research projects.


Control of pathogens in cheeses made from unpasteurised milk

There is a growing consumer demand for artisan cheeses, particularly those made from raw or unpasteurised milk.  However, there have been several outbreaks across the world of foodborne illness that have been linked to the consumption of cheeses made from unpasteurised milk, raising concerns about its microbiological safety. 

FSS have commissioned this project to collate evidence on effective controlling factors that can be utilised during the cheesemaking process, particularly with respect to competing microflora, to support predictive modelling and validation of the food business operators processes to contribute to the delivery of FSS’s strategy aimed at reducing the incidence of foodborne illness in Scotland.

The objective of this work is completion a literature review encompassing these key areas:

Categorisation of cheese types commonly produced in the UK and an analysis of which critical control points (CCPs) might be used at various stages of the production of such cheese types;

An analysis of currently available predictive modelling and challenge testing methods that are applicable to cheesemakers to enable future recommendations to be made regarding the most suitable methods for individual cheesemakers;

An analysis of historical microbiological and physicochemical results obtained from cheesemakers undertaking sampling in their products to examine trends of microorganisms throughout the cheesemaking process and inform standardisation of trends.

This project is due for completion 30th November 2017.

The risk of STEC (Shiga toxin-producing E. coli) contamination in wild venison

In 2015, there was an outbreak of E. coli O157 (STEC) associated with the consumption of venison products in Scotland. During the investigation of this incident, FSS identified a number of gaps in our knowledge regarding the risks of STEC contamination in venison in Scotland.

The aim of this project is improve our understanding of the risks of contamination of venison meat in Scotland in order to find ways to mitigate these risks.

The project comprises three parts; (i) a literature review to map the venison industry in Scotland, (ii) a field study to assess STEC prevalence in wild deer faeces in Scotland and (iii) a review of the cross-contamination risks during the slaughter and production of venison.

This work is being undertaken by the Moredun Institute in collaboration with stakeholders from the venison industry and is part funded by the Scottish Government. It is due for completion by Summer 2019.

Factors affecting variations in Campylobacter disease rates in Scotland

A previous FSA funded research project used data collected from human cases of infection between 2000 and 2006, (age, sex, seasonality and location of cases) in combination with data on the distribution of potential risk factors such as private water supplies, animal densities, and measures of deprivation to develop statistical models. The results identified real differences in the geographic distribution of Campylobacter infection in Scotland, linked to differences in exposure to infection. One of the key findings was decreased reporting of Campylobacter infection in more deprived areas when compared to less deprived areas. However, it was not clear whether this was actually a true reflection of the disease incidence, an artefact of reporting, or a signature of differential health care uptake by these communities. This further project will update the distribution of Campylobacter infection in Scotland using new descriptive and molecular epidemiological evidence to assess to what extent it is possible to correlate regional and socioeconomic factors with disease incidence, and identify the population groups in Scotland which are at the highest risk of infection.

Employing source attribution and molecular epidemiology to measure the impact of interventions on human campylobacteriosis in Scotland - An extension focused on the role of Scottish broiler production on human campylobacteriosis cases

Campylobacteriosis in the Grampian region has been studied in depth since 2005. This study has been commissioned by Food Standards Scotland (FSS) as an extension to the previous iCaMPS-3 study to obtain evidence on the importance of retail ready chicken in Scotland as a source of human campylobacteriosis and also to assess the impact of targeted interventions at Scottish farms and abattoirs on campylobacter cases.

Analysis of campylobacter contamination at the beginning and end of the production line at a Scottish abattoir will be conducted using caecal (representative of on-farm colonisation) and whole bird isolates (representative of retail ready birds) collected from the abattoir.  Comparison will be made to existing i-CaMPS retail whole bird isolates.

Patient questionnaires will be sent to all human cases to allow greater understanding of the exposures, routes of infection, seasonal trends and the risk factors associated with human campylobacteriosis in Grampian.

Sensitivity analyses will be performed in order to test the robustness of attribution models used and molecular phylogeny methods (family trees) will be used to detect case clustering of subtypes of campylobacter in order to establish whether a direct link between cases and sources might be discernible.

The final report is due for publication early October 2017.

Research programme to improve our understanding of the factors which lead to E. coli O157 shedding by cattle and intervention strategies for on-farm control

This project seeks to address key gaps in our understanding of the factors which lead to supershedding in cattle and the contribution made by supershedders to transmission in animals, contamination of the food chain and human illness. The proposed research also aims to assist the FSA in determining how effective on-farm interventions would need to be to impact on the levels of VTEC entering the food chain, and which approaches would have the most potential for on-farm control of VTEC shedding in the UK. This project started in January 2014, and will be completed in November 2017. The project will aim to determine shedding and transmission dynamics by colonisation trials under controlled conditions, look at the comparison of human and bovine EHEC O157 strains (this will involve a survey of farms in England, Wales and Scotland) and to model on-farm interventions to determine strategies with potential of reducing human illness.

Risk perceptions, risk communication strategies and consumer behaviours

Foodborne illness is an important public health concern in Scotland.  It is estimated there are 43,000 cases per year and 500 hospital admissions not to mention the individual pain, suffering and economic loss it causes.  One of the ways FSS tries to manage foodborne illness is through raising awareness of the risks and good food safety practices, however it can be difficult to change consumers behaviours.  Therefore it is important to have knowledge of how public awareness campaigns can be most successful and we can create effective risk communications.  This project is for a 3-year PhD studentship that is jointly funded by FSS and University of Stirling.  The main research questions to be addressed by this project are:

  1. Who are the key target population groups for food safety messaging in Scotland?
  2. How can we effectively tailor communication strategies for those sub-grouped within the population
  3. How can approaches from consumer economics and behavioural economics be used to develop effective risk communication strategies for different groups of people in the population?
  4. From the public’s perspective, what type of risk communication strategies are most acceptable and easy to understand?

This research started in October 2016 and is due to be completed in October 2019.



Understanding the factors governing Azadinium generated shellfish toxicity in Scottish waters

This project is a 3.5 year PhD studentship co-funded by FSAS with Scottish Association for Marine Science. The project will develop an understanding of the temporal and spatial dynamics of Azadinium, phytoplankton species producing known marine toxins (azaspiracids), in Scottish waters and of the environmental factors that govern these dynamics. A key outcome of this project will be evidence to allow targeted monitoring of Azadinium within the Scottish phytoplankton Official OC monitoring programme.

EU baseline survey of Norovirus in oysters

Noroviruses (NoV) are known to be a primary cause of ‘winter vomiting disease’ due to rapid spread in human population, particularly in the winter months. They are primarily spread through the faecal-oral route, either by the consumption of contaminated food or water, or by spreading directly from person to person. Many different foods have been associated with NoV outbreaks. Raspberries and oysters have been implicated in national and international outbreaks. Bivalve molluscs are known to concentrate NoV particles while filter feeding, with oysters posing a particular risk due to being routinely eaten raw. The current survey is part of a 2 year project to establish the prevalence of Norovirus  in EU oysters. This data was requested by the European Commission and covers 171 production areas and 197 dispatch centres across Europe, including 14 harvesting areas and 1 dispatch centre from Scotland.  The aims are to assess the proportion of EU classified production areas with NoV contamination, and assess the proportion of batches of final product at approved EU dispatch centres with NoV contamination. The project will be complete in November 2018.

You can also search or browse our published food safety research.


Chemical Contaminants

Review of Priority Chemical Contaminant Risks, Food Production and Consumer Diets in Scotland

Chemical contamination can occur at any stage in the food chain, as a result of farming methods and practices, due to environmental contamination, or during transport, storage or processing. There are also many different types of chemical contaminant: naturally produced contaminants e.g. mycotoxins, algal biotoxins; organic compounds e.g. dioxins , PCBs; inorganic compounds e.g. lead, nitrates; plant toxins e.g. pyrrolizidine alkaloids, and process contaminants e.g. acrylamide.

The mechanisms whereby contaminants can enter the food chain and the pathways they may follow are complex. Exposure to chemical contaminants in food potentially poses a significant risk to human health which can be wide ranging, and acute or chronic depending on the nature of the chemical, and the overall exposure to it.

Therefore FSS is conducting a literature review to provide a synopsis, prioritising the key chemical contaminants risks to consumers in Scotland and identifying evidence gaps. The review will also consider  contaminants that may be of particular relevance to economically important food industries in Scotland, such as those related to fish production, Scotch whisky and some cereal crops. The review will assist in further development of the chemical contaminants component of our strategy for reducing foodborne illness and in more efficient targeting of FSS research and messaging to protect consumers in Scotland.

The research started in January 2018 and the report is due for publication in May 2018.

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