We first realised that we needed to investigate the scale of the Listeria problem, and so began our human practices investigating the impact of Listeria outbreaks worldwide in the last year.
We found that:

  • Listeria has an effect on trade, both directly (via restrictions on import from affected countries) and indirectly (due to loss of consumer trust and reduced demand for goods).

  • We need to ensure that our detection system is both quick and accurate to avoid lost time waiting for tests impacting the quality of the food being tested.

  • It is key that food testing be decentralised to avoid a single point of failure and therefore our detection system should use a reporter that needs no equipment to interpret.

  • It is currently impractical to test each packet of food if contamination is suspected. Our system should be higher resolution by reporting Listeria contamination only when present and able to prevent this food waste.

We carried out a brief analysis into recent news articles describing Listeria and listeriosis in order to work out what aspects we needed to consider when developing our project.

Why the listeriosis outbreak is 'just the tip of the iceberg' - by Alet Janse van Rensburg
8th March 2018
News 24

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This piece highlights that the recent Listeriosis outbreak in South Africa reveals issues with general food safety for the urban poor. Processed meats are a key protein source for many people and these foods are generally produced in large factories operated by one of a few large companies. This centralised food production means that if contamination occurs, it affects many people at once. A possible solution to this general problem would be taking some of the control over testing away from the company and ensuring that in the future there is less reliance on a single point of failure for food safety testing. This means we will need to ensure that our project does not require any expensive equipment (fluorimeter etc.) or training as this would mean that people would be forced to cede control back to larger organisations, who may have a vested interest in presenting their food as safer than it actually is. Chromoproteins provide an easily detectable output through production of bright colours visible to the naked eye, and may be a suitable output for our biosensor.

Egypt just banned South African imports because of listeriosis - by Phillip de Wet
11th May 2018
Business Insider South Africa

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Egypt has placed new restrictions on imports from South Africa.

“[Egypt] wants assurances that SA can test for Listeria and provide accompanying paperwork.” - Phillip de Wet.

This shows that testing for Listeria is still a significant barrier to international trade and an improvement in this area would help reduce Listeria's economic impact. This is especially important for highly perishable goods such as cheese, fruit or fresh meat as any delay in testing can reduce the time the consumer has to consume the goods before they go bad. It will, therefore, be important for us to model our device to ensure that it works fast enough to be useful, but also is not overly sensitive as this risks false positives which would lead to unnecessary destruction of food and huge costs to businesses.

Woolworths is recalling rice over fears of Listeria- by James de Villiers
10th July 2018
Business Insider South Africa

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TOTAL RECALL Listeria outbreak – what frozen vegetables and foods have been recalled over listeriosis concerns?- by Guy Birchall and Hollie Borland
23rd July 2018
The Sun

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These articles indicate that products that are not cooked before eating, such as soft cheeses, sweet corn or fresh fruit, are an important vector for Listeria, but that current testing is inadequate: because testing each batch or pack is not feasible using food external methods, we need to focus internal methods such as including a sensor inside the food. In this case, large recalls are not needed because the consumer can see for themselves whether or not their specific packet is contaminated. This raises particular difficulty with licensing and safety accreditation and we will need to investigate the regulatory framework around GM organisms used inside food rather than the more established framework of GM organisms being used for food production (e.g. GM rennet production).

Brexit could free UK farmers from Europe’s stringent GMO regulations - by Justin Cremer
12th September 2018
Genetic Literacy Project

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'We take a science-based approach to GM regulation': UK to consider relaxing gene editing ban post Brexit - by Katy Askew
14th September 2018
Food Navigator

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These articles raise an important question: should we use Brexit as an opportunity to move away from the EU’s position on GMOs? Many countries in the world have much less stringent regulations for GM food and relaxing the UK’s restrictions on the use of these products may be essential for forming new trading relationships post-Brexit. Relaxing the law with regard to GM foods would be good for our project as it would be illegal to use in food under current EU law. However, serious reservations about GM food and food standards (post-Brexit) remain amongst both the general public and members of parliament. A greater analysis of GMO regulation post–Brexit is warranted as it may have profound effects on our projects viability and on the synthetic biology industry in general. We carried out further investigation on how Brexit may affect our project which can be read here.