The biology of food

Natasha Mckim discovers how science plays a part in food standards




Norval Strachan, 51, is an expert on foodborne illnesses such as salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and cryptosporidium.

Norval occupies the chair of physics at the University of Aberdeen has been seconded as chief scientific officer to Food Standards Scotland (FSS) at its Aberdeen headquarters.

He employs his skills to help inform the public of risks associated with food.

FSS advises the Scottish Government and other authorities on policies such as food and animal feed. Norval uses the application of science to help the public sector agency remain up to date on scientific information.


What is your educational background?

My first degree is in physics. I then worked in a fisheries laboratory in the 1990s because I was interested in food and safety.

Now I am at Aberdeen University teaching physics and researching biology, specifically diseases caused by foodborne pathogens.

How do you go from a physics degree to working in biology?

I was interested in joining Food Standards Scotland because I was always interested in the practical application of science. I had an aptitude for physics and was good at it in school. I was doing best at physics and chemistry. Physics is numerate and problem solving with a numerate background.

What do you do as part of your job at Aberdeen University in the physics department?

I work with PhD students who are studying the issue of fish in the Mediterranean as part of an EU project to assess the eating of parasites in that area. The students are looking at private water supplies and the excrement of farm animals which finds its way into the water.


What do you do in your research on food standards?

I have also done work with the Food Standards Agency since the mid 2000s. You need a broad range of skills. A good range of problem solving skills is very important. Food Standards Scotland minimises risk – looking at risk assessments and papers on food safety. We have more and more problems associated with trying to solve climate change, global warming and an ageing population. There is a need to understand different fields.

The application of science is very important to Food Standards Scotland and it is very interesting for me. I do a lot of research work in the biology department at the university. We use science across many areas of food safety to improve food standards.

What service do Food Standards Scotland provide for the public?

Food Standards Scotland provides up-to-date scientific information to inform people. We have been working on a scientific strategy this year and have almost completed it, ready to roll it out. We are thinking about how we use science and how we implement it in our policies.

Would you recommend a science degree as a good career?

A science degree opens a lot of doors. Physics and other numerate degrees mean you can do a lot, for example, go into the science industry.

There are a lot of opportunities.

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