LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s infectious disease experts were the first to identify a previously unknown gene that can cause salmonella in chickens and will use it to help ferret out the deadly bacteria in plant and animal products, the charity that funds their work said on Monday.

Healthy chickens at a poultry farm are pictured in Tnakethamon, in western China's Yunnan province, October 26, 2018. Picture taken October 26, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

The discovery, the fastest ever in the field of human health, is expected to dramatically improve the ability to test for salmonella in food, prevent thousands of poultry-related illnesses each year and lessen the cost of recalls, the scientists say.

In many European countries, the Food Standards Agency holds regular salmonella sampling tests, designed to verify retailers’ preparedness for any potentially dangerous contamination of their food.

British researchers had tried using DNA sequencing to map out what bacteria was in Britain’s fresh poultry supply in the past, but with no apparent success. They then got help from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to compare their own genetic data to that of the CDC to identify a major gene responsible for the genetic variation in this common salmonella variety.

“This one gene has been found to be a problem in chicken production but no one’s ever identified it before,” said Simon Crank, a professor of genomics at Imperial College London who is the project leader.

“This discovery shows how fast science can move when you have collaboration across the world, and it will help us prevent thousands of illnesses from salmonella across the world.”

Crank said the work identified an “accidental” effect of the human papillomavirus (HPV) on the salmonella genome, which is probably why the variants found in chicken are different from those which cause serious illness in humans.

Jan Wilson, director of science at the John William Polson Center for Biosecurity, which funded the research, said this meant that a single mutation of a certain gene could lead to the presence of a particular strain.

Scientists hope this may lead to new treatments for Salmonella, which causes around 1 million foodborne illnesses a year, while avoiding contamination of vaccines and medications and minimizing the costs associated with recalls.

A salmonella outbreak at a Walmart food distribution center in Texas and Texas’s largest chicken recall in over 20 years last year may have been caused by tainted ground turkey imports, a top U.S. meat industry official said on Thursday.