Food

Report reveals pandemic and Brexit impact on UK food microbiology lab

The COVID-19 pandemic and EU exit put “pressure” on the United Kingdom’s main lab for food microbiology, according to an annual report.

The UK’s national reference laboratory (NRL) for food microbiology is Public Health England.

Despite the pressure leaving the European Union and the coronavirus pandemic had on the service, the NRL took part in all relevant European Reference Laboratory (EURL) activities and kept the official laboratory (OL) network, the Food Standards Agency and other stakeholders up to date with news and information.

The report covers work from April 2020 to March 2021 related to Listeria monocytogenes, coagulase-positive staphylococci, E. coli including STEC, Campylobacter, Salmonella and antimicrobial resistance.

Salmonella and E. coli alerts


NRL activities were directly affected by the pandemic, as all six EURLs, based in different EU countries, had to cancel or postpone planned activities. The lab also supported UK official laboratories with advice, getting consumables or testing diverted samples for public health needs.

Despite the UK leaving Europe, the EU Commission allowed the EURLs to accept the UK, except Northern Ireland, as a third country to participate in their activities.

Only two Epidemic Intelligence Information System (EPIS) alerts from the Salmonella EURL were received in the reporting period about clusters in May and September 2020. This may be because of the UK leaving the EU and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report. EPIS foodborne and waterborne diseases and zoonoses (FWD) was replaced by EpiPulse in July 2021.

In March 2020, the EURL launched monitoring of Salmonella Mikawasima isolates in food, animals, animal feed and the environment for 2020, to investigate the source of human cases. The NRL checked the UK database and found no isolates from food or the environment. The EURL also told the network there was a Salmonella Typhimurium and Salmonella Anatum investigation into contaminated nuts but the UK was already involved.

The NRL received four outbreak alerts from the E. coli EURL with two each from the United States and Canada. This was lower than previous years, possibly because of the pandemic, according to the report.

Domestic capacity


A report on the latest NRL audit in October 2019 of official laboratories is expected by the end of this year. It checked if official laboratories need support on recent updates in ISO Standards and the EU Official Control regulations.

The NRL did not arrange any specific training for UK official laboratories because of reasons including COVID-19, the significant reduction in food testing during lockdowns, and the delay of specific ISO standards being published. There were “difficulties” experienced by labs with reduced working capacities at many locations, according to the report.

All 14 official laboratories registered to the European Food Microbiology Legislation external quality assessment scheme, with NRL support for 2020 to 2021. Overall, results were good, however, detection of Listeria monocytogenes in powdered products are not being identified by some as a relevant test. The NRL participated in 10 EURL proficiency tests and there was satisfactory performance in eight.

Demand for toxin detection in coagulase-positive staphylococci in the UK is very low, with on average one request for testing made every two years. Because of the low referrals, the UK lab outsources this method to an NRL in the Netherlands.

Planned work from April 2021 to March 2022 includes liaising with FSA about testing capabilities after EU exit; with CEFAS for E. coli and Salmonella in shellfish; with Campden BRI on challenge testing and producing guidance on the use and validation of alternative methods for testing foodborne organisms in food, feed and environmental samples in official controls.

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