What engineers can teach food safety types, learn from failure

After bombing out as a genetics grad student and dabbling in journalism, I re-entered academia teaching risk analysis to engineering students at the University of Waterloo (that’s in Canada, down the road from Guelph). I taught a course called Science, Technology and Values to about 100 engineering undergrads twice a year.

I loved it.

We got to examine in real-time the assessment, management and communication failures of the 1994 Intel chip melt-down, which is now being repeated with the Apple iPhone. Engineers are big on failure analysis and figuring out ways to prevent future accidents.

The causes are usually cultural rather than technological failures.

As William J. Broad writes in the New York Times this morning, disasters teach more than successes.

While that idea may sound paradoxical, it is widely accepted among engineers.

They say grim lessons arise because the reasons for triumph in matters of technology are often arbitrary and invisible, whereas the cause of a particular failure can frequently be uncovered, documented and reworked to make improvements.

Disaster, in short, can become a spur to innovation.

Henry Petroski, a historian of engineering at Duke University and author of “Success Through Failure,” a 2006 book, said,

“It’s a great source of knowledge — and humbling, too — sometimes that’s necessary. Nobody wants failures. But you also don’t want to let a good crisis go to waste.”

What’s baffled me is that the food industry seems immune to such lessons. Or it takes forever. It took 29 outbreaks involving leafy greens before the California industry had a tipping point and decided to get serious about food safety? The same mistakes are repeated over and over and over and it’s boring (and really dangerous).

Canadian greats, The Tragically Hip, who are not engineers, just dudes from Kingston (that’s in Ontario) summed it up in their 1994 song, Titanic Terrarium:

An accident’s sometimes the only way
To worm our way back to bad decisions


Improving sampling and risk communication at FSIS

Chuck Dodd is dreamy – as a student, that is.

What teacher wouldn’t be proud when a student does a class assignment, and it eventually gets published in a peer-reviewed journal?

Chuck took my graduate course, Food Safety Risk Analysis, in the early part of 2008. For the final assignment, students are required to take a food safety risk issue of their choosing, and develop a risk analysis report for an audience, like a regulatory agency, integrating risk assessment, management and communication.

Chuck’s report – after editing and thoughtful comments from colleagues – was recently published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, entitled, Regulatory management and communication of risks associated with Eschericia coli O157:H7 in ground beef.

The Kansas State University press release that went out this morning says, in part,

What consumers may not be finding out about recalls and the inspection process, however, could make them doubt the effectiveness of what is actually a pretty good system to keep food safe, according to Kansas State University researchers.

Charles Dodd, K-State doctoral student in food science, Wamego, and Doug Powell, K-State associate professor of food safety, published a paper in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease about how one government agency communicates risk about deadly bacteria like E. coli O157 in ground beef.

Publications, Web pages and recalls are all used in this risk communication.

Dodd said that although the Food Safety and Inspection Service generally does a good job of keeping meat safe, it’s easy for consumers to think the opposite, particularly when a recall tells them that the food in the fridge or pantry may be dangerous. In their study, Dodd and Powell looked at what information consumers can take away from the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Web site, and suggest government agencies can more clearly communicate their role in keeping the food supply safe.

"We as Americans tend to expect more from regulatory agencies than we should, so we set ourselves up for disappointment," Dodd said. "Occasionally, regulatory agencies may create unrealistic expectations by the way they communicate with the public. The message of our paper is to say that the Food Safety and Inspection Service is doing a good job, considering the amount of resources it has. We are trying to open up dialogue about how its role could be communicated more effectively." …

Testing is just one tool that the Food Safety and Inspection Service uses. Its role is to monitor what other stakeholders are doing to keep food safe. "As a regulatory agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service is monitoring food safety, not necessarily testing it themselves," Dodd said. "I think that’s what a lot of us consumers misinterpret. We need to remember that regulatory agencies allocate, not assume, responsibility."

He got an A in the class. And he collects his own cow pies for sampling (left).

Dodd, C.C. and Powell, D.A. 2009. Regulatory management and communication of risks associated with Eschericia coli O157:H7 in ground beef. Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, 6(6): 743-747.


Foodborne illness outbreaks and ground beef recalls associated with Escherichia coli O157:H7 have generated substantial consumer risk awareness. Although this risk has been assessed and managed according to federal regulation, communication strategies may hamper stakeholder perception of regulatory efforts in the face of continued E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks associated with ground beef. To mitigate the risk of E. coli O157:H7 contamination in ground beef, the beef industry employs preharvest and postharvest interventions, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) provides regulatory oversight. Policy makers must understand and clearly express that regulation allocates, not assumes, responsibility. The FSIS role may be poorly communicated, leading consumers, retailers, and others in the farm-to-fork food safety system to misrepresent risks and creating unrealistic expectations of regulatory responsibility. To improve this risk communication, revisions may be needed in FSIS-related documents, Web pages, peer-reviewed publications, and recall announcements.

Powell teaches

I love being at Kansas State. Sure, it’s a long way to the airport, and there is no ice hockey, but those are minor  inconveniences.

What I love best, other than the French professor wife, is the flexibility and independence that KState admin-types offer, while making one feel they are part of a bigger team.

It’s sorta cool.

So after a year of finding my place and where I fit in this food safety force, I’m going to start offering two courses. 

Food safety reporting is offered through the department of Mass Communications and Journalism (MC 690 Section C).

Food Safety Reporting will provide students the opportunity to develop news, feature and opinion stories for a variety of media. Students will receive extensive feedback from several instructors and will have the opportunity to interact with food reporters at several national newspapers. Individual pieces will be published through the International Food Safety Network (foodsafety.ksu.edu) website, listserves and barfblog.com.

Dr. Powell has been working on and off as a journalist since 1987, when he was the editor-in-chief of the University of Guelph student newspaper, The Ontarian. He has, and continues, to write for prominent newspapers in Canada, U.S. and Australia, including the N.Y. Times, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was the Canadian news correspondent for the journal, Science, from 1990-1993.

The other is, Topics in Pathobiology: Food Safety Risk Analysis

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion by education."

This course is open to PhD students (DM/P 995), Masters students (DM/P 895) and undergraduates (e-mail me).

Food Safety Risk Analysis is based on the principles of risk analysis – the interwoven roles of risk assessment, management and communication – and their application to food safety, agricultural biotechnology, and food policy development. This course will aid students in developing the ability to critically examine risk issues and various stakeholder perspectives leading to appropriate and beneficial policy development. 

A significant portion of the course will focus on the importance of thorough research and good communication skills, as well as the suitability of communication efforts. In addition, assignments are designed to help students increase their knowledge, understanding, and use of electronic resources. The emphasis on acquiring and critically evaluating electronic information will assist students in further developing lifelong learning skills. The course will be presented through in-class lectures, case study presentations, and Internet-based support material including text, audio and video through the extensive database underpinning the Food Safety Network web site (foodsafety.ksu.edu).