Food Safety From Farms To Our Plates

Interview with Professor Maria Fredriksson-Ahomaa
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Food Hygiene and Environmental Health

Maria’s research focuses on bacteria that can grow in our food. Her studies involve especially bacteria transmitted through contaminated meat that can cause human illnesses. This work is depend on collaboration with the food industry and impacts the safety of the food on our plates.

Why is company collaboration important in your field of research?

“If you want to solve problems in my field of research, it has to be done with food businesses” begins Maria Fredriksson-Ahomaa. Meat inspection practices have changed more towards a risk-based approach. Rather than focusing on the end product at the retail level, food safety already starts at the farms level. Maria continues, “Everything from animal health and zoonotic diseases to the use of antimicrobial drugs has to be taken into account by veterinarians, as not only do these affect the quality and safety of the meat but also affects the meat inspection practices at the slaughterhouse.”

“There is great focus these days on new diseases. For this, you need access to the animals already at the farm.”

Maria works with the industry when it comes to surveillance of foodborne pathogens. This includes the study of microorganisms at the farm level as well as the evaluation of hygiene processes in the food chain and the safety of the end products. She explains, “Often food companies want us to check products in order to assure food safety. In slaughterhouses and meat processing plants, it is most important to evaluate the hygiene processes starting from the live animals and ending up with packed meat.”

At times, Maria has started joint company collaboration projects based on her own ideas and research questions, with the aim of solving a particular problem affecting the industry. However, according to Maria, “The subject of our research can be a sensitive matter for businesses. No company wants to find bacteria that can cause human illnesses in their meat! Therefore, the research questions that need to be solved often tend to come from the companies themselves.”

What about teaching, is business collaboration important when it comes to training?

“Yes, very!” exclaims Maria. Typically, slaughterhouses don’t come to mind when people think of veterinary medicine. Many students who apply to the veterinary program are surprised that meat inspection and slaughterhouse practices are obligatory courses for all veterinary students. Maria explains, “This type of training requires tight connections with the slaughterhouses. These contacts can also be useful for the students. Not only do they get practical experience for their future careers but they also gain networks and connections with the industry. Many students end up getting hired by the companies.”

“The University is good at providing the substance and theory for teaching but the industry can provide practical training and skills.”

 You mentioned that your research can be a sensitive matter for companies. How do you convince companies to collaborate with you?  

“By being aware of potential risks, businesses can take action early. We try and communicate to companies the benefits of pathogen surveillance. Even if the results are not always positive, the knowledge gives you an opportunity to react and do something about the problem.”

 What type of challenges do you face when seeking out collaborative partners?

It can be difficult to find the right company interested in solving a particular problem. Maria emphasizes, “Any partnership has to be based on mutual interests. Sometimes we would like to base our research question simply on our own curiosity, for example the surveillance of pathogens, which may not always be of interest for the business. Other times a company might have a problem to solve which can be a big issue but not interesting in terms of the research aspects.”

“Attracting company partners greatly depends on your personal networks and who you already know.”

What advice would you give those interested in starting business collaboration?

 “Networking and building personal relationships are vital. Usually companies find us or we find them through our existing network. Also, researchers want to publish, it is therefore important to consider and agree about the intended use of the results early on.  For this, communication skills and building trust are very important. You have to be able to communicate your research needs however you also have to find out what interests the companies.”

The Business Collaboration Team offered all faculties an opportunity to pilot a new service,”The Business Collaboration Accelerator”. The Faculty of Medicine is our first pilot case. In this blog series, we interview 15 veterinarians about their experiences with industry.