Inside the USDA’s new “food safety mobile,”  a group of third graders are wide-eyed and oohing and ahhing as digital bacteria magically appear before their eyes.

“We’re going to teach you how to keep you and your family safe,” announces Lieutenant JG Cody Thornton, a public health officer with the agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Thornton and a team of food safety educators are traveling the country for the next 6 months with a 40-foot long “food safety mobile”–officially known as the Food Safety Discovery Zone–to teach proper food handling.

foodsafetyedcamp.jpgYesterday, the bright yellow rig paid a visit to Carmody Hills Elementary in Capitol Heights, Maryland, to put on a Food Safety Education Camp for 150 schoolchildren in 3rd through 6th grade. “The kids really love it,” says Thornton, who is clearly having fun relaying food safety messages. “This is what we’re hired to do, to get out there and teach.”

The interactive food safety-classroom-on-wheels drives home what has become the food safety public health mantra in both industry and government–clean, separate, cook, and chill–in a number of creative ways. Kids can peer into microscopes to see what E. coli, Salmonella, and other common pathogens look like, they learn the importance of hand washing and the risk of cross-contamination by being able to watch bacteria multiply on screen and under black light.

Since its launch earlier this month, the mobile has reached around 15,000 people in five stops and the agency hopes to reach over 400,000 people by the time the first tour ends in November. There are dozens of stops scheduled at farmers markets, schools, food festivals, and large events, including the Iowa State Fair and the Country Music Awards Music Festival.

“The basic principle is that you reach people where they are,” said Brian Mabry, a spokesman for FSIS.

According to the FSIS food safety education staff, adults have also been receptive to the mobile food-handling lessons. “They find it really informative,”  says Mary Harris, the Food Safety Discovery Zone program coordinator.

food safety mobile 2.jpgImproving public outreach and education is part of the Administration’s effort to reduce the health burden of foodborne illness, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates affects one in four Americans annually. Though all of the President’s Food Safety Working Group recommendations focus on reforming the food safety system, not on educating consumers.

Most experts–including FSIS food safety educators–agree that improving food handling is only one part a myriad of actions government can take to reduce foodborne illness.

“We obviously must do better,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told a conference of food safety educators in March. “We must do a better job ensuring that the food Americans consume is safe and the public has all the information to keep their families healthy.

“Even if industry does everything they can–and sometimes they don’t–these are naturally-occurring pathogens. People need to know there is a kill step,” said Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, which is partnering with USDA on the food safety mobile, in an interview with Food Safety News.       

Eventually the program will also incorporate nutritional advice. FSIS will partner with USDA’s Food Nutrition Service (FNS) to do public outreach on how to pack lunches and make nutritious snacks. (In a scene reminiscent of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution reality TV series, the third graders couldn’t identify a tomato during one of the demonstrations yesterday.)

The entire food safety tour, loops through the Midwest and then comes back to the Chesapeake region from May through November 2010.

Top: FSIS food safety educator demonstrates how fast bacteria grows to a group of elementary students. Bottom: Food Safety Discovery Zone makes its debut on the National Mall (photo courtesy of FSIS flickr).