Food safety modeling and real life

Friend of the blog, Don Schaffner (right, not exactly as shown), of Rutgers University writes:

 stuart.smalleyWhen I started my professional career 25 years ago there was a perception amongst many academics that those with an extension mission were somehow second-class citizens. I can see why, because many extension specialists spent all their time working with their clientele helping them to solve problems. They didn’t do research, they didn’t publish papers, and they certainly didn’t get competitive national grants. Even 25 years ago, peer-reviewed publications and grant dollars were the yardstick against which academic success was measured.

I’m delighted to report that the profession has changed. When I look around the country at my extension peers, I see we are some of the most accomplished, hard working, articulate, and well-funded academics in the game. I think there’s a reason for this. First we are all awesome, but more importantly we are engaged both with our clientele as well as the science. Understanding the needs of the industry is fundamental to doing relevant and high quality science. I did some work for Jetro/Restaurant Depot that was published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2013. That work came from blend of industry need and my skill in the practical applications of predictive food microbiology.

Like all good academics, when I find an interesting problem, I milk it for all it’s worth. That’s a joke. I think the proper academic speak for what I’m talking about is “examining the topic in-depth.” I knew that the 2013 JFP article was a good start, but it needed additional support that could only be found in the laboratory. Fortunately, I had a talented graduate student at the time that needed a good project. Jennifer McConnell and I published a paper this year, also in JFP (Vol. 77, 7:1110–1115) in which we took the modeling framework that I had proposed in the 2013 paper and applied it specifically to the growth of Salmonella in ground beef in situations where there was a loss of temperature control. When we started the project I had in mind the scenario outlined in the 2013 article: An individual transporting food from one location to another without temperature control.  By the time Jenn finished her project we had discovered another potentially even more useful application. We can blame hurricane Sandy for that.

The widespread power outages and their impacts on retail food establishments made the deliberations of the Conference for Food Protection committee updating the “Emergency Action Plan for Retail Food Establishments” document very interested in understanding the food safety implications of foods that experience a loss of temperature control due to power failure and which start to rise slowly in temperature. With my 2013 article published, and Jenn’s 2014 article well underway, I felt confident advising the committee on the utility of computer models for the growth of pathogenic bacteria in foods experiencing a gradual loss of temperature control.

How does the story end?   Jenn successfully defended her MS degree and she’s living her dream as a lab manager with Cornell University in New York City running a lab that studies tuberculosis. The CFP committee submitted their document, which was approved by Council III, and which is sitting somewhere in a repository waiting for the next hurricane. And me? I’m living my dream. Doing research, writing the occasional blog post, and trying to make the world just a little bit safer.