The CoE addressed some of the key microbiological challenges in the food production chain. Microbiological factors have a significant bearing on food safety and quality throughout the food chain, from farm to consumer health, “from field to stomach”. This kind of broad inclusive approach is essential to developing sustainable solutions to risk management and food safety.
Modern production processes and cold chains have thoroughly changed the microbial ecological conditions of food production. They have raised new challenges for microbiological safety, which can only be adequately tackled and controlled by means of new research. Research on foodborne pathogens at the CoE was mainly focused on cold-resistant and sporogenous bacteria as well as on bacteria with a low infectious dose. Food product development is also creating new kinds of food contamination problems. Research in this area was focused on cold-resistant lactic acid bacteria and certain enterobacteria.
Food safety ultimately translates into consumer wellbeing and intestinal health. Indeed, key areas of research at the CoE included the human intestinal microbiota, foodborne diseases, the characteristics of bacteria and the mechanisms governing the interaction between microbes and hosts. Other lines of work included the development of new types of vaccinations for intestinal infections in animals kept for farming purposes, and research to explore the development and spread of antibiotic resistance.
The diversity and multidisciplinarity of this research made it a unique undertaking in the whole of Europe. A major strength of research and researcher training at the CoE was the close collaboration among veterinary surgeons, microbiologists, biochemists, molecular biologists and bioinformation specialists, which allowed for the use of a wide range of different approaches. The CoE also worked closely with the Finnish food and pharmaceuticals industry with a view to improving business and industry competitiveness.
The CoE’s research aims were to 1) explore and understand the molecular-level interactions between host, intestinal microbiota and probiotic bacteria, to develop mucous membrane vaccination vectors based on bionanotechnology for the prevention of intestinal infections, and to develop molecular diagnostics and biomarkers for purposes of studying intestinal health; 2) to study the taxonomy, diversity and metabolism of cold-resistant lactic acid bacteria and enterobacteria as well as routes of contamination; 3) to study the evolution, ecology, epidemiology and aetiological characteristics of the Campylobacter and Helicobacter genera; and 4) to study the molecular epidemiology and functional genomics of the Clostridium, Listeria and Yersinia foodborne pathogens and to develop diagnostic tools to understand the adaptive responses of these microbes in foods and in their industrial production environments.
The knowledge coming out of this research will have important practical application in preventing intestinal infections and in examining intestinal health. Furthermore, it will help improve process hygiene; protect consumers against bacteria responsible for food spoilage; and reduce food industry losses due to premature product spoilage.
The CoE was headed by Professor of Veterinary Microbiology Airi Palva from the University of Helsinki. Palva was then head of the Department of Basic Veterinary Medicine, Adjunct Professor in Microbiology at the University of Helsinki and Adjunct Professor in Molecular Biology at the University of Turku. She had previously been employed at the University of Helsinki Department of Virology, the National Public Health Institute, Orion Corporation, as team leader at the University of Helsinki Institute of Biotechnology and as Senior Scientist at MTT Agrifood Research Finland.
The CoE had four research teams that were all based at the University of Helsinki Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. The teams had a research staff of five professors, 13 postdoctoral researchers, 62 doctoral thesis writers, 22 laboratory technicians and two other academic staff, adding up to a total of 104.