Like extension offices at land grant universities across the country, Penn State Extension offers classes on topics that include food safety. But the public research university is taking it a big step further.

With a trial run in Armenia completed, Penn State wants to take its Extension Service’s food safety program international to combat conditions that lead to nearly one in 10 people worldwide getting sick each year from eating contaminated food.

That’s 600 million people.

Food safety best practices are common in the United States, but that’s not the case in many countries around the world, where restaurant patrons risk being subjected to foodborne illnesses. It’s also a big factor in food production, and the Penn State group is working to educate food processors and producers as well as those who prepare and serve food.

Penn State’s Catherine Cutter talks about food safety. Photo Courtesy one Penn State

“The food-safety practices that Americans take for granted — such as washing hands with soap, refrigerating perishables, and not cutting raw meat and vegetables on the same surface without disinfection — may not be practiced widely in other places around the world,” said Catherine Cutter, professor of food science and Penn State Extension assistant director for food safety and quality programs.

In fact, 420,000 die annually from foodborne illness, 125,000 of them younger than 5, according to World Health Organization.

Cutter and her colleagues in the College of Agricultural Sciences want to change that.

They are working to internationalize Penn State Extension, which has been vital to establishing food safety in the United States. She says doing so would help protect people in the U.S., as well, because some of the food Americans eat is imported from other countries.

“We work on food safety on a number of different fronts,” Cutter said by phone on Thursday. “Our educators are nationally recognized in a number of areas.”

Penn State works in Pennsylvania with, for example, Amish growers and other local processors, and it does training in other states in the U.S.

Some of Cutter’s colleagues are doing work in Honduras and Costa Rica. She’s heading for both the Ukraine and Africa this summer. They find they’re welcome wherever they go, she said.

“They’re happy to have us,” Cutter said. “If they can’t export their strawberries to the U.S., that’s business for them. And from the import standpoint, you want those suppliers to have good training.”

People who complete the course with a Tech Food-Safety System Management certificate.

First, Armenia

Catherine Cutter teaches students in Armenia. Penn State

“From the international standpoint we kick-started it off with the Armenia project,” Cutter said. “Then we jumped to the Ukraine … and then to Africa with food safety laboratories focused on getting them up to speed with information on trouble shooting, data recording, how process procedures are being done.”

In Africa, Penn State will work in Mozambique, Uganda and Ethiopia, funded by the the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Cutter and her colleagues believe the program will not only improve food safety, it will draw more people to Penn State’s programming and help create healthier communities and economies.

Last year, Cutter’s research group offered the Food-Safety System Management curriculum to 30 students and two instructors in the Agribusiness Teaching Center at the National Agrarian University in Yerevan, Armenia, as part of a joint venture between Penn State, Virginia Tech and the International Center for Agribusiness and Education. The project was funded by the USAID.

A couple of years ago, Armenia experienced a number of  outbreaks and deaths from botulism poisoning, listeriosis and pathogenic E. coli. Penn State responded to the resulting call for food safety training there.

Cutter and her team collected demographic data and administered a test to gauge food-safety knowledge, behaviors and attitudes of participants before training. After the students completed the curriculum, the research team did a post-test and found that students’ food-safety attitudes, skills, knowledge and behaviors had improved significantly, according to lead researcher Siroj Pokharel, a postdoctoral scholar in Cutter’s research group. He noted that a follow-up survey of food-safety attitudes and behaviors performed three months later suggested the training had made a lasting difference, according to a story on the project in Penn State News.

Zaruhi Danielyan, an Armenian student who completed the curriculum this year, said in the January 2018 issue of International Center for Agribusiness and Education News that she and her classmates gained understanding about the biology of dangerous food-related microbes; the types of sanitation measures needed to ensure surfaces and equipment that come into contact with food are properly cleaned, sanitized and maintained and how to detect allergens, among other things.

“We live in a society where food safety is still a serious challenge, and there is no all-encompassing national food-safety system covering the entire food chain, from soil to fork,” she wrote. “Armed with the Penn State and Virginia Tech Food-Safety System Management certificate, the proper knowledge, and the will to change the country, my friends and I will join the army of professionals in their combat against illiteracy in food safety.”

Starting this fall, local instructors will teach the program, Cutter said.

On to Ukraine and beyond
Cutter plans to replicate the program in Ukraine beginning in June this year with financial assistance from the Woskob New Century Fund, an endowment within the College of Agricultural Sciences created by the Woskob family to promote partnerships among Penn State and institutions in the Ukraine.

She said the Woskob family is from the Ukraine and is interested in helping improve the economy and food safety there.

While training the next generation of food-industry professionals in food safety best practices is important, Cutter also sees a need to help those already working in the industry. In Latin America, for example, she is developing fact sheets and videos in Spanish to help prepare countries for the Food and Drug Administration’s new Food Safety Modernization Act regulations.

“Any country that wants to export to the United States has to meet the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act requirements for shipping produce,” said Cutter.

In addition, she is developing a comprehensive food safety training program for laboratory personnel working in food-testing in East and South Africa.

The WHO estimates Africa has the highest burden in foodborne diseases. The international organization has most recently been working in South Africa to help with the world’s largest ever outbreak from Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

“To combat foodborne illness, it is important to revamp the proven scientific methods in Africa to handle, prepare and store food,” Cutter told Penn State News. “Training of laboratory personnel to detect biological and chemical hazards, to assess data, and to make recommendations based on the laboratory findings is crucial.”

Cutter said she is in communication with representatives of several other nations about the possibility of implementing Extension’s food safety programs in their countries.

“The bottom line is that food safety is a global issue,” she said, “and Penn State can make a big difference in the world.”

And yes, the challenge can be overwhelming. Cutter said Thursday.

“I feel like we’ve got a  lot of work to do. But (this) is natural progression. Instead of food industry professionals coming here for a week we bundled it into four weeks and then we get on the ground and teach it.

“My thinking is that this is going to help the next generation not only with employment opportunities, but they’ll talk about what Penn State did for them and that will help drive people to our online programs. The costs are not exorbitant and if it means difference between your company being able to export and get in the market, a lot of companies are willing to pay that.”

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