Ian Sweeney, Germany, June 21, 2012, Berlin

Today we drove to the Berlin-Marienfelde location of the Bundesinstitut fur Risikobewertung (BfR), which roughly translates to the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. The location is west of the former Berlin wall by about 1 km, and the facilities appeared modern and spacious. Juergen Thier-Kundke, of the Press and Public Relations unit, kindly gave us a tour of the main grounds. They have facilities for lectures and offices, as well as for research, which is their primary focus.

After showing us around, Juergen gave us a talk about the history and function of the BfR. It was founded in November, 2002 when the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine was reorganized. The BfR is essentially the Risk Assessment arm of the former agency, and the Risk Management duties fall on a different organization. This makes the BfR free to conduct independent scientifically based studies without political influence. It is also entirely funded from public sources, and can therefore be independent from private influence as well. The independence of this agency from outside influence has been very deliberately structured so as to eliminate any doubt of bias of their research and risk communication.

The main areas of work for the BfR include food safety (microbial and chemical) and risk assessment, safety of chemicals, plant products and biocides, and safety of selected consumer products and products that contact people indirectly. They are also responsible for independent risk communication, meaning that they do not need oversight or permission from governing bodies or from higher up in the Health Organization. However, they can only give advice; they do not have the power to enforce recalls. And they are responsible for conducting research independent of academic or private research. They also run National Reference Laboratories which monitor infectious pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli and review methods being used for research of these pathogens. Another area of work is on alternative methods to animal research, which address some animal welfare concerns, but also reduces the cost and time of conducting risk assessment studies.

After Juergen’s talk, we were introduced to Dr. Katrin Stolle from the research coordination unit, who gave us a talk on their research and international collaborations. We were reminded that their main focus is producing quality scientific data for risk assessment, and that any research they do is independent by design. Although they do conduct their own research experiments, they also gather data from other sources, such as the scientific literature, routine surveillance, and self-assessments. The research they conduct is focused on refining methods used in their reference laboratories, supplying data for risk assessments, creating a base of knowledge for communication and perception of risk, and reducing the need for animal experimentation. Much of the national research they conduct is centered in one of their 14 National Reference Laboratories, each of which is focused on a particular pathogen or product. They are also involved in several international research products, including some for QSAFFE (which is a European Collaboration for monitoring food safety), a study on ESBL and flouroquinolone resistance in Enterobacteriaceae, and a study looking for MRSA in the food chain. These international studies are primarily done in coordination with other international laboratories, and funding for these studies comes from sources like the EU, or the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). The BfR works particularly close with the EFSA, and data sharing, research coordination, working groups and pacts are commonplace between the two agencies. Katrin also talked about the role of the BfR in the EHEC outbreak last year, in which they established a joint committee with the Robert Koch Institute to research the origin of the outbreak, conducted an epidemiological study, and were ultimately able to trace the outbreaks back to one farm that had produced sprouts from Egyptian seeds.

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After these two talks, we were brought over to the laboratories where some of the National Reference Laboratories are centered, and we donned lab coats for a tour. Dr. Alexandra Fetsch from the Microbial Toxins unit was kind enough to take us on an extensive tour of the Staphylococcal reference laboratory, including where specimens were first cultured and isolated, and where further identification tests, PCR, and resistance testing were run. They were primarily focused on monitoring Staphylococcus aureus strains for antimicrobial resistance, especially for methicillin resistance. Specimens are collected from production animals directly (ie; cattle, swine, etc.) using nasal and anal swabs, from the environment of farms and slaughterhouses, and from samples of meat. If Staphylococcus is isolated, they run PCR and look for the presence of the mecA gene, which is a mobile genetic element which confers methicillin resistance to the bacteria. Then they are further typed based the spa (staphylococcal protein A) gene, and in some cases by multiplex PCR (if it is of particular interest). The result is a comprehensive food chain monitoring program for MRSA. The results they have found are surprising; apparently in Germany 60% of farms have MRSA in the environment, 80% of slaughterhouses test positive for MRSA, and about 10-20% of consumer ready meat is also positive for MRSA.

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The next tour was of the National Reference Laboratory for antimicrobial resistance, which was given by Dr. Andreas Schroeter of the Antibiotic Resistance and Resistance Determinants unit. He also gave us an informative and thorough explanation of what his laboratory did using Salmonella as an example. When they receive a sample, they identify it based on serotype, then on phage type. Once they have established this, they identify whether it is a wild type strain or a vaccine strain. Once they have adequately identified the strain, they run the isolate through a serotiter machine to determine the resistance profile, which they then record. We were shown the lab where they do all of the identification, as well as the resistance profiles. They are also responsible for running similar identification tests and resistance profiles on other food-borne pathogens such as Campylobacter and E. coli. Monitoring these bacteria for resistance is an important for monitoring animal health and food safety. Researchers at the BfR are not only concerned with resistance in these pathogen species, but also hope to gain insight into the resistance present in commensal bacteria of the gastrointestinal system.

After touring the National Reference Laboratories, we had one more lecture given by Eline Basilio-Janke, who gave us a presentation to illustrate food safety studies performed by her unit, Safety in the Food Chain. After the Deep Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, concern has been focused on the impact of a large oil spill on food derived from the ocean, especially fish and shellfish. In response, the BfR did a study to evaluate the potential for different oil constituents to be concentrated in sea-life (bioconcentration) after dispersants have been used to solubilize spilt crude oil. Based on past studies, they focused on poly-aromatic hydrocarbon compounds (PAHs), which are considered to be the most toxic constituent of crude oil, and of these they focused on four PAHs which as a group are considered to be a good marker of total PAH concentration (there are 16 priority pollutant PAHs). They also chose a scenario that would mimic a North Sea oil spill, using the PAH profile of North Sea oil as the basis for their experiments. From this study, they were able to determine that shellfish, especially mussels, tend to accumulate PAHs much more than fish. With this information the BfR has been able to prioritize the testing of mollusks, especially mussels, in its planned monitoring of the impact of an oil spill on food safety.

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Before we wrapped up our visit, we said our goodbyes and visited the on-sight cafeteria at the BfR for lunch. The rest of the day we had to ourselves in Berlin. Some of us went shopping for gifts, while others saw some of the sights they weren’t able to see over the weekend. Dinner was on our own as well, and some of us chose sushi, while others explored the music festival taking place that evening in Berlin. Berlin has a lot to see, so it was easy to find things to do.