K-State Helps Keep Kansans Safe from Foodborne Illness
There's nothing like a great burger, hot off the grill. Or maybe it's a salad at the church supper. One thing's for sure, we all need foods that nourish our bodies. But the truth is, we're all just one sandwich or salad away from contracting foodborne illness through tainted lettuce, tomato, meat, condiments, or other ingredients.
Many of those cases, however, are preventable, and a team of K-State Research and Extension specialists is taking a multifaceted approach to keep consumers and the food supply safe.
"One in six people in the U.S. – about 48 million – are infected with foodborne illness every year, and those are the cases we know about," said Londa Nwadike, consumer food safety specialist. "Many people get sick but aren't always aware of why they feel queasy or have diarrhea, so these cases are underreported."
In Kansas during 2013, for example, the number of salmonellosis cases confirmed by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment totaled 401 as of Dec. 7, 2013, and Shiga toxin-producing E. coli cases totaled 87. Either can make people ill and in the worst cases, can be fatal.
Nwadike, who is based at the K-State Olathe campus, also works for University of Missouri extension.
"Consumer food safety issues are the same whether you're in Kansas or Missouri," she said, noting that the split appointment maximizes resources and efficiently uses taxpayer funding.
Being proactive, reactive
Nwadike and a team of K-State specialists educate food processors, foodservice employees, and consumers about the best food handling practices through fact sheets, news releases, presentations, workshops and the K-State Research and Extension food safety website.
The team — which includes food scientist Fadi Aramouni, extension associate Karen Blakeslee, meat scientist Elizabeth Boyle, and family and consumer sciences specialist Gayle Price — proactively works with companies as well as consumers to teach best food safety practices – from wearing gloves to proper maintenance and cleaning of equipment.
Aramouni and Boyle, who are based at K-State's Manhattan campus, work primarily with processors. Nwadike along with Price, who is based at K-State's southeast area office in Chanute, work primarily on consumer education.
Blakeslee responds to calls and emails about food from all over the state as coordinator of K-State's Rapid Response Center. Food safety tips including "You Asked It," a monthly newsletter, are posted on the center's website.
In partnership with the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, K-State Research and Extension is the Kansas home to ServSafe, a national certification program designed to teach safe handling practices to foodservice employees and others who handle and serve food to the public. Through ServSafe, K-State conducts training to hundreds of foodservice employees and others every year.
The team also conducts training for county and district agents across the state.
"Through agents across the state, our food safety education efforts are magnified and reach many more people than we could reach otherwise," Nwadike said.
Prior to joining K-State and Missouri in 2013, she worked in a similar role at the University of Vermont. But it was her earlier work for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in developing countries such as Gambia and Malawi that Nwadike's interest in food safety really grew.
"I learned a lot then that's applicable here," she said. "Generally speaking, people are not that different around the world. Consumers have to make decisions everywhere, about the cost versus benefit. Our role is to provide research-based information so people can make informed decisions."
Her plans include working with consumers who buy, and vendors who sell at farmers markets. She's also identified a need for food safety education among those who operate daycare facilities and preschools – many of whom serve meals to children.
Keeping food safe, starting children early
Butler County resident Connie Chilcott has fond memories of learning to cook and preserve food with her mother 60 years ago. She knows it's important to be aware of science-based changes in food safety practices that have occurred over the years, so she can teach 4-H members, adults, and her own grandchildren the best practices for shopping, preparing, and preserving food.
"I'm glad to see food preservation is becoming more popular," said Chilcott, who has been a 4-H club leader for 44 years and served on the Butler County Extension Council. "I love watching 4-H'ers grow and mature through the 4-H program."
And Chilcott practices what she preaches. "For my personal canning and since I teach others, it is important that I teach correct methods" she said of what she's learned through K-State's Rapid Response Center and other extension programs. "In food preservation, I'm known for canning green beans. My brother-in-law raises them and my daughter-in-law and granddaughter helped can 360 quarts in my canning center. I recently purchased a pressure canner which does 14 quarts at a time and that helps with the timeframe."