Last year alone, the Family Food Education Volunteers at Oregon State University Extension Service spent more than 23,000 hours teaching 29,000 Oregonians how to avoid foodborne illness by using safe food-handling practices.
Part of this volunteer work includes maintaining a hotline that receives as many as 6,000 callers during its season of operation (July-October). And hotline volunteers don’t just answer questions; they save lives.
They explain how Listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures, or how botulism can grow in low-acid cooked foods, like baked potatoes, left too long at room temperature.
Caroline Raab, OSU food and nutrition specialist who takes pride in her team of volunteers, says the need is growing for the kind of food safety instruction extension services provide. Interest in home canning and other types of home food preparation, for example, has risen rapidly as sustainable living practices regain popularity and people seek expert help and up-to-date information.
Oregon State University’s Extension Service and its volunteers are able to extend a hand thanks to the long-standing Cooperative Extension System, a national network that provides research-based, practical information to local farmers, business owners, and consumers.
The extension program became formalized in 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act established a land-grand university’s responsibility to conduct agricultural research with practical applications and to educate the community on new agricultural practices and technology.
Today, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA, is responsible for distributing federal funds to land-grant universities so that the Extension System can continue to educate Americans on topics such as food safety. However, recent government-wide budget cuts have left the NIFA, like many other government agencies, financially constrained.
As Jan Singleton, National Program Leader in Food Safety, says, “Every one of us at the county, state, and federal levels, we’ve all been affected by shrinking budgets and probably will continue to be.”
What does this mean for the Extension System’s food safety programs? For one thing, the Food and Drug Administration and Food Safety and Inspection Service are not able to hire as many food inspectors, and inspectors frequently partner with the Extension System’s food safety programs, participating in food safety education events and programs in the community. A shortage of inspectors translates into less community food safety education.
Lisbeth Goddik, a dairy product specialist at OSU, says she is lucky because she receives additional funding from the local cheese industry. In fact, thanks to a recent endowment,her department is now able to conduct food safety training for specialty cheese-making for far less than a consultant charges.
Goddik continues to educate her students and the community about sanitary production practices. She says she recently convinced a cheese manufacturer that making brie with raw milk, then aging it at a low temperature for 60 days, would be risky.
But while Goddik receives the funding she needs to promote dairy safety, she realizes financial times are uneasy for all of OSU’s extension programs. The program used to provide funding for research assistants, funding that has now been cut off. Goddik’s colleague, a specialist in dairy cattle, recently retired and no one has been hired to replace him.
Over the next few days, we will highlight various land-grant universities and their efforts to promote food safety in the community.
For more information on the Cooperative Extension System and its history, please visit http://www.csrees.usda.gov/qlinks/extension.html.