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Despite great improvements in food safety, food poisoning remains a problem in Europe, with over 1 000 deaths each year caused by bacteria carried by food. An experimental technique shows promise in combating two of the most severe infective bacteria, Salmonella and Cambylobacter, which cause a high proportion of cases of serious illness and fatalities. Flocks of chickens are frequently infected with these bacteria, especially when intensively raised for food. The bacteria can survive in chicken meat or eggs, transmitting the diseases to the people who eat them.

Chicken feed has been routinely dosed with antibiotics to try and control infections, but this has not provided a lasting solution. Bacteria readily mutate to acquire resistance to antibiotics. The faster new antibiotics are developed, the more quickly new resistant strains emerge, so all developed countries are now trying to limit the use of antibiotics in animal feed. This should ensure that antibiotics still remain effective for treating human infections.


It is therefore a matter of urgency to find alternative ways of preventing and treating the chicken infections that are also a risk to humans. Of the present possibilities, bacteriophage (phage) therapy shows promise. Phages are highly specific in killing certain strains of bacteria, just like antibiotics, but with the added benefit of multiplying as they consume the host, so they spread rapidly. Recent work has shown that phages are highly effective at clearing pathogens from poultry carcases and at killing them in the intestines of live birds and in their eggs.

The method requires investigation and development before it can be used on a large scale, and the PHAGEvet- P project has been designed to set this on course. It will evaluate the use of phages as alternatives to antibiotics in poultry production, and assess whether they can play an effective part in the EU's fork-to-farm policy for ensuring the safety of Europe's food. During its three-year course, two groups in Portugal and the UK and a group in Spain are doing comparable tests on live poultry, using expert advice from a Russian group.


The project builds on exploratory work in Europe and the US. Its first aim is to establish that phages can reduce or eliminate Salmonella and Cambylobacter from small flocks of live chickens. The other significant aim is to ensure that such birds then provide poultry products that are fit for human consumption and have greatly reduced levels of contamination by these two pathogens.

Small batches of birds will be studied to demonstrate that, in principle, phages are suitable for controlling the two bacteria. Initially, the project will isolate and produce highly lytic phages specific to the two species and establish the most effective way to use them to treat birds. It will work out methods for sampling and detection in a protocol to be used by all research centres. If these trials demonstrate significant reductions in bacteria in the birds and their products, the stage will be set for larger trials involving several hundred birds. The possibility of phage-resistant strains emerging will also be investigated.

The PHAGEvet-P project will have an important impact on the poultry sector, helping to guarantee the safety and economic viability of its products. New poultry feeds could be developed as well as alternative treatments to antibiotics. Controlling the spread of resistance to antibiotics will benefit human health as well as animal welfare. This innovative technique could provide new research knowledge and techniques, as well as new business opportunities.

List of Partners

  • Universidade do Minho, Departamento de Engenharia Biológica (Portugal)
  • School of Veterinary Science, Bristol University (UK)
  • Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, Faculdad de Farmacia (Spain)
  • Leatherhead Food International (UK)
  • Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Escola Superior de Biotecnologia (Portugal)
  • State Institute for Genetics and Selection of Industrial Microorganisms (Russia)
Full title:
Veterinary phage therapies as alternatives to antibiotics in poultry production
Contract n°:
Website: projectos/PhageVet-P
Project co-ordinator:
Joana Azeredo, Universidade do Minho, Departamento de Engenharia Biológica,
EC Scientific Officer:
Hallgeir Herikstad,
EU contribution:
€ 674,000
Specific Targeted Research Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top