Researchers in the College of Health and Life Sciences at Aston University have been awarded funds to explore the microbiome of the kitchen chopping board with the help of 'citizen scientists'. The grant is from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) as part of a larger project to investigate food standard challenges.
The new citizen science project plans to recruit participants from underrepresented communities in the West Midlands to investigate levels of foodborne bacteria in the home and produce educational materials for their communities.
Citizen science projects put the public at the heart of the research process. Rather than being the subjects of the research, citizens are actively involved in collecting and analysing data, and even deciding what questions they want to ask and co-developing the approaches with researchers Citizen science also gives participants the opportunity to directly contribute to scientific research and influence policy.
The research team in the School of Biosciences will recruit citizen scientists through its students, who will act as ambassadors in their own households and communities. The team will create methods for sampling bacteria from chopping boards and gather their observations with their team of citizen scientists and ambassadors.
This will enable the researchers to identify the bacteria present and determine their antimicrobial resistance (AMR) profiles, providing opportunities for ambassadors and citizens to perform lab research.
The researchers, alongside their ambassadors and citizens, will then co-design and disseminate educational materials on food hygiene tailored to their target communities and based on the findings of the study.
Dr Alan Goddard, senior lecturer in the School of Biosciences and project lead, said:
"Many foodborne infections begin in the home, often through poor hygiene where chopping boards provide an opportunity for raw foods to cross-contaminate.
"This is why this project is an exciting opportunity to work with our students and communities to investigate a microbiological problem that causes significant disease every year. By working with the public, we get privileged access to authentic environments and can ensure our solutions are appropriate."
At present, around 40 per cent of outbreaks of foodborne infections in Europe occur at home, with approximately 2.4 million cases of food poisoning occurring in the UK annually, leading to 180 deaths. A common source of such infections is poor food hygiene, with chopping boards, where raw foods may cross-contaminate, playing a key role in the infection chain. Misunderstandings, or poor food hygiene, may therefore contribute a significant disease burden.
This exciting project brings together the expertise of University researchers with the natural inquisitiveness of members of the public to co-develop and undertake a research project which has the potential for real impact in reducing the burden of foodborne disease in the home."
Professor Anthony Hilton, Executive Dean, College of Health and Life Sciences
The FSA and UKRI have awarded a total of £200,000 to fund six projects in order to bring the public and researchers together to investigate food standards challenges.
All six projects include exploring the bacteria on home grown produce, parents testing the safety of baby formula, and people with food hypersensitivities analysing the allergens in food bought online.
The citizen science projects are all linked to the FSA's Areas of Research Interest themes, covering issues such as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), food hypersensitivity and food safety and hygiene in the home. The funding was delivered in collaboration with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Economic and Social research Council (ESRC), both part of UKRI. It is part of a wider effort to coordinate activities and develop a joined-up approach to tackle the challenges of maintaining safe food in the UK.
Professor Robin May, Chief Scientific Advisor for the FSA said:
'I'm delighted that the FSA is supporting these exciting citizen science projects across the country. In addition to delivering invaluable data, these projects will allow the communities we serve to help build the evidence on which policy decisions are made. We are committed to using science and evidence to tackle the latest food-related issues and citizen science is a fantastic way of doing this.'
The citizen science project investigating the microbiome of the kitchen chopping at Aston University will start in January 2022, concluding in July 2022.