“A risk of contamination, including with refrigerated products”
I joined ANSES, or rather AFSSA as it was at the time, in 2000. Since then I have held several positions, both within the Agency and on secondment to the French Ministry of Agriculture. This experience has brought me into contact with all aspects of the health risks associated with food: risk assessment, risk management, health monitoring of the food chain, expert appraisal and research. In January 2020, I became Deputy Head of the Salmonella and Listeria Unit. These two bacteria cause food poisoning in humans. Our job is to monitor their presence in food and – through our research – to improve the means of detection and better understand the risks of transmission. My unit also oversees the national and European reference laboratories for Listeria. This bacterium is found everywhere in the environment. It can be detected in all types of food: delicatessen meats, fishery products, raw milk cheese, as well as on fresh produce, contaminated during production or by the consumer during preparation. The key characteristic of this bacterium is its ability to multiply at low temperatures. As a result, refrigerated ready-to-eat products carry a specific risk of consumer exposure. The disease caused by this bacterium is called listeriosis. It can be very serious, with a mortality rate of 30% if the bacterium spreads through the body. Fortunately, it is relatively rare in France, with only around 300 cases every year. This serious form of the disease affects mainly pregnant women, leading to miscarriage in some cases, and people who are immunocompromised.
“Helping laboratories to detect Listeria in food”
As a reference laboratory, our role is to supervise the official laboratories in detecting Listeria in food, by assessing their skills, organising training, helping them to keep pace with new technological developments and hosting scientific workshops. We also provide support for the authorities in clarifying unclear analytical results, or investigating human cases. This work is carried out in collaboration with the National Reference Centre and Santé Publique France, which monitor cases of human listeriosis. Our objective today is to increase our knowledge of the Listeria strains circulating in the different agri-food sectors, in order to gain a clearer understanding of their diversity and the factors determining their virulence or persistence in the environment, and thus to build up a more detailed picture of the sources of contamination. To achieve this, we are closely studying the “genetic identity” of the bacteria present in food and the environment, comparing them with the strains of human origin. This requires the implementation of faster and more precise techniques of bacterial characterisation. One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is to generate new scientific knowledge through our work and to see that knowledge quickly passed on to people in the field. These rich and varied collaborative studies contribute to the global public health policy.
Assisting in the battle against COVID-19: “An intense but extraordinary experience”
Reflecting the strong bond of trust with our partners working in the field of human health, Santé Publique France asked me to provide assistance at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March. I said yes straight away, even though viral diseases are in no way my field of expertise! I helped to coordinate the team setting up a national information system to centralise the results of analyses conducted by medical biology laboratories in private practices or hospitals. These data are used to monitor the progress of COVID-19. It was an intense but extraordinary month, in which the emphasis was very much on coordination, consultation and a fast response. Even though the situations were different, we shared the same way of thinking and the same epidemiological methods. I took some ideas away with me, in particular, to be able to centralise data from the food surveillance laboratories more effectively.