“Imagine hosting a party, you wouldn’t want it to be memorable because of a food safety outbreak.” This is how Margarethe Cooper, assistant professor of practice in animal and comparative biomedical sciences, introduces the importance of food safety science to her students.
Cooper highlights the bigger outbreaks that draw national attention—the wedding turned disaster after more than 300 people were sickened with Clostridium perfringens served in the form of improperly cooled gravy or, her personal favorite, the debacle surrounding 216 food safety officials sickened at none other than a food safety conference.
No matter how you slice it, no one is immune to foodborne illness.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six people will become ill from foodborne pathogens every year. That’s a total of an estimated 48 million people, where approximately 128,000 will be hospitalized, and an estimated 3,000 will die.
Putting Food Safety Science to Work
Food safety scientists have a hand in everything involved in safely producing, packaging, and distributing food products to the world’s population, from growing techniques to final preparation.
“Everybody wants high quality food, and you want it to be safe,” says Cooper. “Nobody wants anybody to get sick at the end of the day.”
From food inspectors to microbiologists, trade analysts to product development engineers, food safety scientists work to protect food from contamination, but when an issue does occur, they ensure processes are in place to quickly identify and remove unsafe food from the supply chain. One of the most difficult aspects of food safety comes when an outbreak is suspected, when food safety investigators find themselves acting as forensic scientists working to track and identify the source.
If we become ill, many of us think about the last place we ate, a restaurant or a catered event. However most foodborne diseases can take anywhere from a week to two weeks to present symptoms. So that restaurant you ate at last night is most likely not the cause. This means that food safety investigators have to ask what have you eaten for every meal in the past two weeks?
“If you ask yourself that question, can you answer it completely and easily? I can’t very easily,” admits Cooper. “For most of us, that may present challenges, yet that is part of how foodborne disease outbreaks are solved—asking questions and analyzing the answers.”
Feeding a Growing Population
Food safety takes center stage as projections estimate the food sector will need to safely feed 10 billion people by 2050. That astounding figure creates quite a challenge, as well as significant opportunity for students looking for careers in the biomedical field.
Established this past fall, CALS food safety undergraduate degree program is one of the first of its kind to provide students a solid foundation in food science, regulation, and law as it relates to public and ecosystem health, as well as sustainability in agricultural production.
Not surprisingly, Arizona is an ideal location for food safety studies. The state is the nation’s largest producer of wintertime leafy greens and vegetables, it ranks 13th in the nation for dairy production, and its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border provides a unique opportunity to study transborder procedures.
“Education in food safety is becoming increasingly important in our lives," said Patricia Stock, interim director of the School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences. “The food safety bachelor's degree was created to provide a platform to educate and prepare our students to become the lead force in the agriculture food safety industry.”
Partnering with Industry
Industry leaders are taking note. This January, the University of Arizona School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences received a $1.5 million gift from Victor P. Smith to establish an endowed chair in food safety education. Smith is CEO of JV Smith Cos, a diverse group of operations that span Arizona, California, Colorado and the Baja peninsula of Mexico.
Cooper, the inaugural holder of the Victor P. Smith Endowed Chair in Food Safety Education, is using the role to develop and promote food safety educational programs and connect students with industry partners for food safety-related career opportunities.
Her first program, the SaferFoodCats Summer Camp, brought 13 high school students to the UA main campus for a two-week long, hands-on introduction to food safety. The program was designed to provide opportunities for low-income and minority students across the state and included six students from the Yuma and Imperial Valley area, five students from the Navajo Nation, one student from Bagdad, and one student from Tucson.
While working at the UA’s state-of-the-art Food Studies Laboratory, students were guided through aseptic technique, microscopy, and specimen plating, all of which are translatable and foundational skills for a wide array of biomedicine fields.
“I am extremely proud of the SaferFoodCats and all that they learned and their willingness to dig in and engage in science, said Cooper. “I’m looking forward to following what they do in the future!”