Dr. Joellen Feirtag wears many hats. One day she is a food sleuth, taking swab samples at a meat plant to find the origin of an E. coli outbreak. The next, she is instructing its employees in food safety. Next week she might be conducting food safety research.
All of these jobs are part of Feirtag’s role as State Food Safety Specialist for the University of Minnesota’s Extension Service. As Feirtag’s job suggests, U of M Extension’s reach is broad when it comes to food safety — spanning research, education and prevention.
Feirtag focuses on industries. When there is an outbreak of foodborne illness, Feirtag is often called in to identify how the food was contaminated at the production site. She then educates the site’s employees about how to handle food safely in the future, and why food safety matters.
And this education works. Ninety-eight percent of facilities do not experience food safety problems after their employees have been properly trained.
Extension’s Food Safety programs also work to educate food service workers before there is an outbreak. Extension’s four educators, all of whom have master’s degrees, run a variety of training programs. For example, “To Your Health” is a program for caregivers that teaches food safety to those working with people at a higher health risk, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or with other immune-compromised conditions.
The community also benefits from the expertise of Extension’s educators. “Cooking Safely for a Crowd” is a food safety program conducted at local organizations such as churches or 4-H clubs. Katherine Waters, who supervises Extension’s education programs, explains that these groups typically wouldn’t have access to food safety training, but safety when cooking for a group presents a few more challenges than cooking at home.
“It’s different when you’re trying to cool down or heat up four gallons of chili,” Waters says.
Extension has also started a program called “Peddling your Pickles” in response to a growing interest in home canning, specifically in local production and people’s desire to sell their canned products. Waters notes, is an art that used to be passed from parent to child, but that family knowledge has started to fade.
Altogether, the University of Minnesota Extension’s food safety programs reached about 2,400 people last year.
U of M Extension also runs a phone line in conjunction with Iowa State Extension to answer callers’ questions regarding food. Last year, the line received 2,208 inquiries about food safety alone.
And that’s not counting the occasional call that Waters gets at her desk. “Sometimes I’ll get a call from someone saying, ‘How long can I leave my meatloaf out on the counter before it’s not safe anymore?’ ” laughs Waters. But Waters she’s glad that at least people know they have a resource at hand to call.
Providing food safety resources to prevent foodborne illness is what Extension’s Food Safety Program is all about. As Feirtag says, the most important step in combating foodborne illness is stopping it before it happens.
Extension recently conducted a program with the Department of Health to teach food industry employees, instead of just managers, exactly what inspectors look for in terms of food safety. The result, Feirtag says, was so surprising it made her recheck her decimal places: Minneapolis saw a 40 percent decrease in critical violations over the next year and a half.
According to Feirtag, this is where money needs to be spent: on education to prevent foodborne illness. But that money has decreased lately as U of M Extension, like many other government programs, has undergone budget cuts. Feirtag says her department used to employ eight food safety educators, but has had to cut that number in half.
On the bright side, Feirtag and Waters both say the recent loss of funds has forced U of M to streamline its programs to make them more effective and efficient.
Nevertheless, Feirtag says, she hopes that in the future, taxpayers and the government will see the value in preventing foodborne illness, and give proper due to food safety education, in addition to budgeting for outbreak investigations.
For more information on U of M Extension’s Food Safety Program, visit http://www.extension.umn.edu/foodsafety/.