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Building Safety into Our Food System

Eating could very well be called America's national pastime. We love it all: gourmet cooking, fast food, meat and potatoes, seafood and vegetables. Food, however, can have a less attractive side.
Ron Fouche Quality Control Manager, Palmyra Bologna Company Inc., Lebanon County

Ron Fouche Quality Control Manager, Palmyra Bologna Company Inc., Lebanon County

"Penn State's Food Science Department helped us improve our manufacturing line by implementing new quality control measures at several points in the process. Their researchers developed an equation we now use to predict the time, pH and temperature needed to eradicate E. coli 0157:H7 and other pathogens from our Lebanon bologna." 

We've all seen the newspaper headlines about people who have become sickened by something they ate. Sometimes, the malady caused amounts to little more than a stomachache. Other times, the result can be a serious food-borne illness.

Although most of the bacteria present in our food system are not harmful, several virulent microbes cause millions of cases of food-borne illness and hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths each year. These pathogens can incapacitate a healthy adult, cause death in young children and senior citizens, and result in medical and other related costs of $6 to $8 billion per year. The scientific names of some of these bacteria are becoming familiar to consumers: Campylobacter , found in beef, poultry and unpasteurized milk; Salmonella , found in eggs, poultry, meat and fresh produce; Listeria , found in soft cheese and deli products; and E. coli 0157:H7 , found in ground beef, hamburgers, bean sprouts and unpasteurized apple cider.

Pennsylvania's food processing and farming industries play integral roles in maintaining food safety within each of the four components of the nation's food system: production, processing, distribution and consumption. Penn State research and education programs ensure that undergraduate and graduate students, food companies, farmers and consumers have and can utilize the most up-to-date food safety information and technology available.

The Payoff

Food safety in production

Researchers have developed training programs detailing production methods that lower bacteria levels on the farm. Total Quality Management workshops provide food safety education to more than 100 agribusiness consultants and service personnel. Scientists and Penn State Cooperative Extension agents also have adapted two federal programs to ensure animal health, the Dairy Quality Assurance Program and the Pork Quality Assurance Program. More than 2,000 dairy herds and 75 percent of all marketed hogs in Pennsylvania are raised under the tenets of these programs. In addition, Penn State faculty have joined with other researchers and state and federal agencies to develop the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program. About 85 percent of the egg-producing flocks in Pennsylvania are enrolled in the program, which monitors cleanliness and requires continuous testing in poultry houses that have tested positive for Salmonella. In 1992, 32 percent of the state's flocks and 23 percent of sampled eggs tested positive for Salmonella. By 1998, only 9 percent of the flocks and 1.3 percent of the egg samples tested positive. Any eggs testing positive for Salmonella are diverted from fresh egg production into pasteurization, which kills the bacteria.

Food safety in processing and manufacturing

Penn State is a leader in offering food safety education to food processing and manufacturing companies. Specialists from the College of Agricultural Sciences teach the Penn State Sanitation Short Course, the Pasteurizer Operator's Workshop and the Better Process Control School -- all aimed at food industry employees. Experts also hold workshops on Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP), a USDA-mandated program that targets and establishes safety controls at those stages in manufacturing where the addition, survival and/or growth of pathogens are most likely to occur. Each year, more than 200 employees and owners in the meat and poultry industry attend these workshops. Penn State specialists also organized the first HACCP workshop for managers, owners and producers in the apple cider industry and are collaborating with state agencies to form a task force to address food safety issues in cider production. In addition, Penn State faculty help individual food companies solve safety questions and have established the Microbial Food Safety Impact Group, an interdisciplinary team that integrates teaching, research and service to solve food safety problems.

Food safety in food service

New state legislation is requiring food safety certification for every food service establishment in Pennsylvania. Many for-profit institutions have begun to offer certification programs, but thousands of nonprofit and service organizations simply can't afford to pay for the training. Penn State extension programs throughout the state offer food safety training to these groups at little or no cost. The programs are very successful. In Lancaster County, 98 percent of program participants have become certified. In the Philadelphia area, more than 300 employees of area nonprofit agencies now have food safety certification.

Food safety at home

Because more than 90 percent of food-borne illnesses are due to mishandling of foods in the home and in food service operations, Penn State has adapted several programs designed to educate children and adults about food safety issues. Specialists adapted a federal food safety educational program, Fight Bac, for use in the state's school systems. The specialists organized 29 teams of trainers to teach the curriculum to 2,200 family and consumer science teachers, who then reach a potential audience of more than 200,000 students. Food safety lessons also are a major component of Penn State's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the SuperCupboard Program, which have reached more than 192,600 adults and 417,000 young people. In 1997, more than half of the adult participants reported improvements in food safety in the home as a result of the EFNEP classes. Thousands of young people also receive food safety education through Penn State 4-H programs.

The College of Agricultural Sciences food safety programs are a collaborative initiative among the Departments of Food Science, Dairy and Animal Science, Horticulture, Plant Pathology, Poultry Science, and Veterinary Science; and Penn State Cooperative Extension. Penn State is currently facilitating the development of a Pennsylvania Food Safety and Quality Alliance, which will integrate the efforts of industry, government, universities and consumers in a farm-to-table approach to enhancing the safety of Pennsylvania foods. For more information, contact Dr. Steve Knabel at (814) 863-1372.