A study published in Biofilms and Microbiomes has approximated the economic impact of biofilms on the food industry. The study also describes the existing scientific and technological challenges that must be overcome to progress in the areas of biofilm research and innovation. 

The study is based on a market analysis and exploratory workshops that were conducted by the UK’s National Biofilms Innovation Center (NBIC). The market analysis reflects 2019 values and includes data from industry reports, academic journal articles, and specialized market reports. NBIC was founded in 2017 to foster cross-sector collaboration to achieve breakthrough innovations in the prevention, detection, management, and engineering of biofilms.

According to the study, biofilms cause an estimated $324 billion impact on the global agrifood sector, annually. For context, the world’s agricultural activity is valued at approximately $3,700 billion, and the annual economic impact of biofilms across all sectors is estimated at $5,000 billion.

The study states that, at present, the main method for controlling biofilms in the food sector is through the use of sanitation and hygiene practices in food processing facilities. Sanitation and hygiene are effective when properly executed, although they can be expensive to implement and are subject to occasional failure. Additionally, although the use of antibiotics in animal feed was once a popular method for mitigating microbial hazards at the agricultural level, the practice is falling out of favor due to the growing threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). 

When measures for combatting microbial hazards and biofilms fail, there can be a significant impact on human health and a country’s financial resources. The study provides an example of a UK foodborne illness outbreak that originated from produce contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes, which cost the manufacturer €30 million ($35.1 million) in recall, transport, and destruction costs. The study also notes that, in the U.S., foodborne pathogens cause approximately 128,000 hospitalizations each year, resulting in an economic impact of $78 billion, annually.

NBIC’s exploratory workshops fostered knowledge-sharing between academics and industry representatives that revealed many scientific and technological challenges that prevent innovation in controlling biofilms. The study lists some of the key areas in which scientific knowledge and technological advancement is necessary, including:

  • Understanding the interaction between biofilms and various surfaces
  • Knowledge of the matrixome—a contributing factor to certain physiochemical attributes of biofilms—to design more effective interventions
  • Rapid early detection systems for real-world applications
  • mproved biofilm analysis methods to deepen understanding of biofilm structure and function
  • Managing biofilms in natural environments
  • Understanding the mode of action of antimicrobials and antibiotics, as well as antimicrobial and antibiotic interactions with biofilms
  • Improved models and standards for biofilm evaluation
  • Augmenting biofilm repositories and biobanks. 

The study stresses the importance of international collaboration in combatting the global challenge of biofilms. NBIC will continue to contribute to international and cross-sectoral collaboration with its Biofilms Standards Task Group, which was established in 2020 to drive the international development and acceptance of standardized biofilm testing methods.