by Lori Greiner
In the early 20th century, Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, not only shed light on the exploitation of American factory workers, but it also led to a public outcry for government oversight of food inspection and certification. Today, the food safety debate rages on, as headlines highlight the latest food safety crisis – from peanut butter and spinach, to pistachios and tomatoes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 76 million people in the United States become sick with foodborne illnesses annually. Of those, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die.
Each incident is a stark reminder of the importance of implementing proper food safety practices throughout the food production chain – from grower, to manufacturer, to cook and consumer.
Since its formation in the early 1900s, Virginia Cooperative Extension has taken an active role in educating the public about food safety. Predecessors of today’s Extension agents demonstrated the latest canning and food preservation techniques to homemakers in their communities. Back then, homemakers wanted to learn the best ways to use home-produced food to feed their families safe and nutritious meals, and today it is no different.
With the public’s heightened awareness of food safety concerns and the growing interest in locally grown foods, Extension has seen an increase in demand for food safety education.
“It’s really important that, as an agency, we bring our resources together and put our research into practice,” says Karen Gehrt, associate director for family and consumer sciences.
Since 1991, Extension has offered ServSafe® – an accredited food safety certification program developed by the National Restaurant Association that trains food service managers on food safety concepts such as sanitation, food storage, safety regulations, pest management, and food handling. Family and consumer sciences agents offer the program locally to food service workers at restaurants, hospitals, schools, and childcare centers. Participants take a test upon completion of the course and must correctly answer at least 75 percent of the questions to receive certification.
Although most Virginia municipalities do not mandate food safety certification, Virginia code does require food service managers to be able to demonstrate knowledge of foodborne disease prevention, including proper food handling. If they are unable to demonstrate adequate food safety knowledge, the restaurant can be shut down immediately.
Beverly Samuel, senior family and consumer sciences agent in Loudoun County, has trained thousands of food service workers since she began providing the course 18 years ago. She teams up with the Loudoun County Health Department to offer the class about six times a year. “The health department has provided tremendous support and helps to promote the program.”
In addition, Samuel collaborates with other agents in Northern Virginia to distribute a quarterly newsletter that promotes upcoming training opportunities to food service establishments.
Extension also offers food safety training geared toward individuals who occasionally prepare and serve large quantities of food for sizeable groups, public events, or fundraisers. The Cooking for Crowds curriculum was specifically developed for use with nonprofit organizations.
Participants in the program are typically organizational volunteers who have little-to-no professional food service training and/or have access to commercial food service equipment. The program uses information and hands-on activities to demonstrate the risks that can develop when cooking large volumes of food, and how to reduce those risks so the food prepared is both safe and delicious.
During the four-hour class, participants learn about food safety standards, use of a thermometer and gloves, and methods to keep food safe and clean.
“Individuals are thankful to receive the training. They know they can lose their ability to raise funds through food sales if something goes wrong,” says Mena Forrester, family and consumer sciences agent in Fauquier County.
According to Forrester, in Fauquier County, in cases where health inspection is required to sell food – such as a fair or festival – groups that complete the course can use their certificate of completion as a temporary permit to begin serving food prior to the official inspection of the food booth. Without the certificate, organizations are at the mercy of the health inspector’s schedule.
Beyond commercial and nonprofit food safety training, Extension continues to serve as a resource for individual consumers. “With the increased interest in the local-food movement and the economic downturn, more people are growing and preserving their own food,” says Renee Boyer, assistant professor and Extension consumer food safety specialist. “People know that they can come to us for reliable information.”
Extension recently held an in-service training on canning and food preservation for its agents in anticipation of increased demand for food preservation information. “A failure to adequately preserve foods in the home can result in foodborne illness,” explains Boyer.
“Once people have a garden and grow something, they want to know what they can do with it,” notes Melissa Chase, family and consumer sciences agent in Giles and Bland Counties.
For more than 19 years, Chase has been doing her own canning and enjoys teaching others how to can, too. Her classes cover equipment safety, food safety, and what consumers need to know before they get started. “My goal is to teach them how to can safely,” Chase says.
Chase often incorporates hands-on canning experience as part of her training. “They have a chance to use the equipment, and it helps them to become more comfortable,” explains Chase. “The folks have an ‘a-ha’ moment when they realize that they can do this. They also like to see the finished product and have something to take home.”
Through the continued success of these core food safety programs, Extension has been able to successfully transfer research-based knowledge into communities.
“Something as simple as hand-washing can greatly impact outcomes,” says Gehrt. “If we change a behavior, like increase hand-washing, we can reduce the incidence of foodborne illness. If we can reduce the number of incidents, we can ultimately reduce the health care costs associated with foodborne illness.”