Recent Blog Posts
By: Jack Palillo
I started my Masters of Public Health in September 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. There was a lot of uncertainty in my program, especially being in the first cohort of MPH students to begin fully in the middle of the pandemic. One of the most pressing issues was finding an applied practicum experience that would allow me to display the skills I had gained during the first year of my MPH. I saw a listing online for a “Foodborne Disease Epidemiology Practicum Opportunity”, applied and hoped for the best. Little did I know that this experience would be crucial to my development as a graduate student and ultimately change my professional career path.
After interviewing with Dr. Kowalcyk and various CFI students, I was invited to join the SHARE project (Developing Methods for Assessing the Public Health Impact of Foodborne Illness Using Electronic Medical Records). While CFI traditionally operates in-person, COVID-19 required them to transition to virtual meetings with limited time in the lab within the Parker Food Science and Technology Building. SHARE was a great fit for me as it allowed me the opportunity to finetune the biostatistical analytical skills I had gained from my graduate program as well as learn how to code. Coding had been something I wanted to learn for a long time, but my educational path had never allowed me to explore it. During my interviews when I had mentioned it as a goal of mine, I realized I had come to the right place as this was something that was heavily taught and utilized at CFI.
Under Drew Barkley, I was tasked with characterizing patients who had stool samples submitted within OSU’s healthcare system from 2011-2019. It is critical to investigating foodborne illnesses due to the underdiagnosing and underreporting associated with them. There are many reasons why there is an underrepresentation of foodborne illnesses, but it can be best understood by looking at the events required for an illness to be properly reported/diagnosed. “First, the ill person must seek medical care. Second, a specimen must be submitted for testing. Lastly, the illness must be reported to public health officials”.1 Any break in this chain can cause underreporting or misdiagnosis. Characterizing this break in the chain was exactly what one aspect of SHARE was looking to investigate as it could provide a better picture of the impact that foodborne illness may be causing at the local level here in Columbus. By writing my code I was able to analyze data by selecting the correct collection methods and then interpret those results into an effective PowerPoint presentation. I was able to investigate foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Shigella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. After much trial and error, I sorted through a data set with over 500,000 observations and presented demographic and diagnostic trends in patients to CFI during our weekly meeting.
Dr. Kowalcyk emphasized that working with her team would teach you professional skills that would go beyond the classroom. While the skills as a newfound data scientist I had learned were very useful, I also developed two very important professional skills. The first was learning to integrate myself into a well-developed team. For the first time in my professional career, I had to be the chair and take minutes for weekly meetings, schedule one-on-one meetings with various team members and even be willing to help out on others’ projects when they had deadlines to meet. The second skill I learned was how to effectively translate research to others. At the end of my practicum, I was required to present my results to both CFI and other MPH students doing their practicums. While CFI was an audience with background knowledge in food safety, many of the other MPH students had focused on other areas of public health. Being able to translate my findings to an audience with minimal knowledge was a challenge, but CFI had prepared me well.
The skills I’ve gained while at CFI have allowed me to successfully defend my master’s thesis and graduate a semester early, submit two abstracts to the International Association for Food Protection 2022 conference, and prepare a manuscript for submission to the Journal of Food Protection. CFI is passionate about mentoring students as this was one of the most rewarding experiences during my graduate education. I will be forever grateful for the skills that CFI has taught me and hope to make a lasting impact in the world of public health research.
Upon graduation, I have accepted a position as a Clinical Data Manager at Massachusetts General Hospital.
1. Scallan, E., et al. “Hospitalisations Due to Bacterial Gastroenteritis: A Comparison of Surveillance and Hospital Discharge Data.” Epidemiology and Infection, vol. 146, no. 8, June 2018, pp. 954–60. PubMed, doi:10.1017/S0950268818000882.
By: Devin LaPolt
Climate change and food safety are two issues that affect all of us. We rely on our food to be nutritious and free from anything that could cause harm, such as pathogens. One factor that can influence food safety is climate change which causes long-term changes in weather patterns. As temperatures increase, pathogens like bacteria, fungi, and protozoa are more likely to cause contamination due to more favorable growth conditions, leading to illness. Increased frequency of heat waves will also affect food safety, as it will become more difficult to keep foods like meat and dairy cold throughout the transportation process as refrigerated trucks must be modified to account for increased length of travel, increased temperature, and increased microbial control measures (USDA, 2015). Food prices will also continue to increase as it becomes more difficult to protect food and prevent spoilage. Food protection involves reducing exposure to the sun, heat, contaminated water, and other sources of pathogens to prevent foodborne illness due to eating unsafe food.
What does this mean for us? As food safety becomes more challenging, there will be an increase in many negative health outcomes related to food consumption. Rates of undernutrition, which is insufficient consumption of food and other nutrients needed to maintain good health, will increase. Undernutrition is associated with climate change effects such as frequent, intense storm events, temperature changes, and flooding. Existing issues of undernutrition or malnutrition will be intensified. Water contamination will persist as a health concern and impact food and agricultural production since contaminated water can lead to contaminated fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products. This contamination of fruits and vegetables with continue to increase as chemicals are transported from industrial sites due to flooding and increased severe weather events. Another source of environmental contamination that increases risk to food safety is heavy metal uptake from soil. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, uptake of heavy metals into plants will increase (Whitworth, 2020). This poses threats to human health as toxic metals like lead can be ingested through the consumption of contaminated produce. Ultimately, the risk factors associated with climate change will continue to pose a significant health risk for people both locally and globally if action is not taken to mitigate risk.
As food and food-related products become more difficult to protect, there are a variety of actions that can be taken to reduce risk of foodborne illness. Some of these include raising awareness of safe food production, additional water quality monitoring, and implementation of new strategies to prevent contamination of food products with pathogens. This could include new monitoring techniques, new policies for agriculture, meat, poultry, and seafood production, or changes to irrigation systems to prevent contamination of agricultural fields.
Brown, M.E., J.M. Antle, P. Backlund, E.R. Carr, W.E. Easterling, M.K. Walsh, C. Ammann, W. Attavanich, C.B. Barrett, M.F. Bellemare, V. Dancheck, C. Funk, K. Grace, J.S.I. Ingram, H. Jiang, H. Maletta, T. Mata, A. Murray, M. Ngugi, D. Ojima, B. O’Neill, and C. Tebaldi. 2015. Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the U.S. Food System. 146 pages. Available online at http://www.usda.gov/oce/climate_change/FoodSecurity2015Assessment/FullAs....
Whitworth, Joe (2020, April 22). “FAO: Climate change is changing food safety landscape. Food Safety News”, https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2020/04/fao-climate-change-is-changing-fo...
World Health Organization. (2019, July 31). Food Safety, climate change, and the role of WHO. World Health Organization. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/food-safety-climate-change-and-t....
Graduate Research Associate
By: Allison Howell
I joined CFI as a graduate student in the Department of Food Science and Technology in May 2020. While the rest of the world was in a state of chaos, I settled right into my new home at OSU with the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention (CFI). Over a year later, I am currently in the process of transitioning to a dual-degree program, where I will complete both my PhD in Food Science and Technology and my MPH in Epidemiology with Dr. Kowalcyk as my advisor. In the past year, I have worked on several of CFI’s projects, such as FAIRE, TARTARE, and Chakula Salama, and I have had the chance to work with students from a diverse mix of educational backgrounds. Throughout all my interactions with CFI, one thing has stood out to me: a passion for translating science and reducing the burden of foodborne illness. My past academic and research experiences were not as focused on translational work, which has the potential for impact at the individual, community, and global levels. Getting to work with this group of passionate researchers and scholars in the food safety field has led me to believe that science does not belong behind the locked doors of a research lab or hidden among stacks of books in a library, but it belongs in our communities and everyday conversations.
When the North Market reached out to CFI looking for educational groups to host booths at their summer markets, I jumped at the chance to lead CFI’s efforts. As an undergraduate student, participating in outreach and engagement was one of my favorite activities, so I was excited to continue this with CFI. I connected with Gina Nicholson Kramer, Director of Partnerships and Learning, to learn more about CFI’s brand and how we wanted to present our group at events. Gina offered me support and guidance as I worked through iterations of what our booth at the market would include. I adapted materials from the Partnership for Food Safety Education (PFSE) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and created a trifold display board with interactive components and succinct food safety messages. Gina also connected me with Food Safety Dietitian Mary Angela Miller at KeepSafeFood , who was kind enough to donate a “Basic 4 Food Safety Kit” and several “Food Safety Chopping Mats” to be raffled off and given away at our booth.
During the event, I was joined by CFI alumni, Devon Mendez, MPH, who now works for Columbus Public Health as a STI epidemiologist. We engaged with market-goers and invited them to test their food safety knowledge with our interactive display or to ask any food safety question they wanted answered. Most shoppers would stop and review our display with inquisitive looks and occasionally ask a question or make a comment about how they didn’t realize there were quite so many things to consider about food safety. We were even visited by one guest who wanted to take our picture, so she could share it with her sister who worked in food safety extension in Indiana. Reflecting on the experience, I realize that most people don’t actively think about the safety of their food. It is often assumed that the people who have handled that food before its purchased have kept it safe, and as long as consumers don’t make some egregious mistake in preparing the food, they will be okay. I think getting people to take a proactive role in acknowledging that all food has risk and the safety is not guaranteed is an important first step to making food safer for everyone.
I really enjoyed my time at the Farmers' Market. It was great to take what I have been learning during my time with CFI and apply it to a setting outside of the classroom or academic context. Outreach and education is an important part of promoting safe food handling behaviors, and I look forward to continuing to share this message at additional CFI outreach events in the future!
Graduate Research Associate
I was accepted to Capella University's Master of Public Health program in the spring of 2020 – it was the final day of classes before Covid-19 would shut down the Ohio State campus for the remainder of the semester. It felt like a sigh of relief to know that my next step was in place and was already designed to be completed entirely online. There wouldn't be any on-the-fly adaptation to the new virtual way of academia; this is exactly how the course was built to function. What I wasn't prepared for was the most nerve-wracking portion of my entire degree – securing a practicum in the middle of a pandemic. There was no guidance offered from my university. It was entirely up to the learners to secure a practicum site to successfully graduate. I sent off a dozen applications and emails. I applied to local health departments, the state health department, organizations around Columbus that I had any type of professional interest or alignment with. It seemed like everyone responded with the same message: "We are not currently accepting practicum students due to the pandemic. Please check back later."
In the midst of my discouragement, I received a response from Dr. Kara Morgan that was different from all the responses that came before it. She invited me in for an interview to work on a project looking at seafood consumption during pregnancy and the neurocognitive effects on the child. I spent the two weeks between scheduling my interview and attending my interview studying up on the subject. I wanted to be knowledgeable and prepared when I sat down to talk to her. We discussed my interests in the field and what I hoped to achieve during my practicum. My interests included maternal and fetal health, followed by food safety and security. The project could not have been a better professional fit! I told her that my biggest goal was to gain experience and exposure in the field. Funnily enough, the most significant public health crisis in my lifetime was gatekeeping my ability to gain the two things that I needed the most. Dr. Morgan had never worked with a student that wasn't an Ohio State student, especially not one with the strange practicum schedule that I was requesting. But despite all of that, she offered me a role on a project with CFI, and I was ecstatic to accept.
During my first week at my practicum, Dr. Morgan introduced me to a partner on the project, and together they explained my role to me. I was the second reviewer on a meta-analysis. I would spend four hours every Monday in the CFI office completing a meta-analysis of 64 journal articles. I had never conducted a meta-analysis before. But it sounded like something I could do - read through the journal articles, collect the data we were interested in. Easy enough.
So, for eight weeks, that is exactly what I did. I came in every Monday; I scrolled through the journal articles. I collected the data of interest: year of publication, number of participants, outcomes being measured, study limitations. Looking at all the research studies was beneficial to me in one of my Research Methods course this semester. The time that I spent shuffling through the articles during my practicum gave a big boost in my ability to decipher through the entire article to find the important pieces. It also helped me feel not so overwhelmed by massive journal articles that felt indigestible, because now I know exactly where to find the information I’m seeking. It saved a lot of time and anxiety when completing assignments. But more importantly, I met an incredible group of intellectuals. I met other MPH and Ph.D. students. I got to discuss their education and career paths with them. We got to reflect on our goals and establish networks with one another. They offered me encouragement that I didn't know I needed at the time. On the ninth week, I collaborated with my partner on the project. We compared our analyses and had constructive conversations about the differences we noticed and how to correct them. I got to meet a variety of professionals in the department. While I continued chipping away at my beast of a meta-analysis, I listened in to several meetings that I wasn't necessarily invited to and gained a world of exposure to different sectors in the field and different issues and topics that CFI and its staff play a role in. I got to absorb a seemingly whole new world of knowledge while I watched the entire department work as a well-oiled machine.
However, I underestimated the absolute confidence that I would have gained from this practicum experience. I think back to sitting in my interview with Dr. Morgan, where I had no experience in the field. My only goal was to get my foot in the door. I think back to my first day of the practicum experience, staring at my blank, daunting spreadsheet, unsure of where to begin. The growth that this practicum experience has offered to me has been unmatched. I have another 10 weeks of my practicum to complete with CFI. Dr. Morgan and I have discussed moving to a new project when I return for the second portion. But I feel more confident than I ever have to step into a new project, and brand-new professional world. My practicum project with Dr. Morgan and CFI has helped equip me with skills and tools that I'll need to be successful, and for that, I will forever be grateful.
In the past, food safety and nutrition were generally not considered jointly, but were managed as two separate issues. That separation can lead to less-than-optimal decision making. There is a new interest in building a decision-making framework that includes both nutrition and food safety jointly, with the intent of improving health outcomes.
One issue in which food safety and nutrition are relevant is seafood consumption during pregnancy. Due to mercury contamination in most bodies of water and therefore in the aquatic food chain, federal guidance asks pregnant women to limit their consumption of seafood due to the risk of impact on their unborn child from mercury. This warning often leads pregnant women to avoid eating seafood altogether. But we also know that seafood provides essential nutrition for the unborn child and research has shown the positive outcomes from prenatal seafood consumption. So, what if the lack of seafood in pregnant women’s diets could actually be doing more harm than good?
As part of our Masters in Public Health Program, we are required to complete a practicum that required to work with an organization on a project or topic related to public health and produce some sort of outcome that reflects our experience. This experience is meant to give us real world experience in the public health field. We were challenged to meet some competencies, such as analyze and interpret data obtained from an epidemiologic investigation and perform effectively on interprofessional teams. We were both excited to work on the Health Outcomes of Prenatal Seafood Consumption Project (HOPs) to meet our practicum requirements. The project’s overall goal is to quantify the impact of current levels of prenatal seafood consumption on the health outcomes of children in the United States. This can be broken down into two parts. Gabby’s practicum experience focused on determining how to update estimates of prenatal consumption of seafood. While Liberty’s practicum experience focused on preparing for a meta-analysis to investigate the impact of seafood on child neurodevelopmental outcome. Once we come up with an estimate for seafood consumption, we can use information from the meta-analysis to determine how the cognitive development of children here in the United States is being affected by seafood consumption.
As part of the HOPs project, we worked on an interprofessional team of public health professionals, along with a physician, a lawyer, and individuals who used to work with the Food and Drug Administration. As a team, we worked together to set goals and benchmarks for the project. We also met with others who worked in the field of nutrition to get their input on different aspects of the project. We examined systematic reviews and cohort studies and gained experience interpreting the results of data analysis.
Over the summer, we identified a data source to quantify seafood consumption and started collecting and preparing the data that will be used in the meta-analysis. Both of us plan to work with CFI for our culminating project to further examine the impact of current levels of prenatal seafood consumption on the health outcomes of the children here in the United States.
By: Nadira Yasmin
A question often posed to students and professionals on the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention (CFI) team is: What is food safety? Although the answer may be vast, one thing is for sure, there is a significance to food safety and why it is studied. Food safety is the scientific method used to reduce and eliminate foodborne illness and injury. Food safety is comprised of several practices, such as proper food production, transportation, storage, and preparation. These practices preserve food quality in order to prevent contamination and reduce foodborne illness (Oyarzabal & VanRenterghem, 2021). Through research, food safety allows for the identification of the burden of disease from foodborne illnesses, which then drives the allocation of resources for the further study and enhancement of safety measures within the food industry.
Food safety can also be viewed as a system. The goal of this system is the reduction or elimination of germs/pathogens in foods that can cause illness. Furthermore, when implemented properly through education and awareness, food safety can influence people’s behavior on food preparation, storage, and management practices. Behavioral science and surveillance are two proactive approaches to monitoring food safety. These approaches allow for continuous improvements in food safety, growing knowledge on foodborne disease outbreaks, and greater prevention methods.
Many times, consumers confuse food safety with food poisoning. Food safety, however, involves the practices that help prevent foodborne illness and make food safe for consumption. Food safety does not guarantee zero risk, but by implementing the right methodologies, there can be minimal risk to the consumer. Organic food is often mistaken for clean food. When in fact, to make the “organic” claim or use the USDA organic seal, the food must adhere to strict production, handling, and labeling procedures, go through the organic certification process, and must be grown without the use of growth regulators, food additives, pesticides, artificial fertilizers, or bioengineered genes (GMOs). Clean food, on the other hand, is food that is free of preservatives and has clean labeling. According to the Institute for Food Technologists, a clean label consists of making a product using as few ingredients as possible and ensuring that those ingredients are recognized and regarded as “wholesome” by the consumers (Velissariou, 2018).
Cleanliness is a major factor in preventing foodborne illness by the simple act of proper handwashing before handling food (Food safety and Inspection Service, n.d.). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have created “Four Steps to Food Safety.” The steps consist of: (1) Clean: washing hands and surfaces often; (2) Separate: avoiding cross-contamination of food, especially meat; (3) Cook: cooking the food to its optimal temperature for consumption; and (4) Chill: refrigerating promptly, especially perishable foods (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).
Like other industries, tradeoffs exist within food safety also. For example, if there is a change made from using fertilizer to manure in the agricultural production sector, the improper handling of the manure can still lead to disease. There is also a cultural aspect to food safety, where a wide array of acceptable methods exist due to the variation of how food is prepared and consumed all around the world. CFI has made significant advancements and reforms within the food safety industry and is working tirelessly toward the elimination of foodborne illnesses altogether. With knowing the importance of food safety now, What does food safety mean to you?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, August 14). Four steps to food safety. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/keep-food-safe.html.
Food safety and Inspection Service. Food Safety | Food Safety and Inspection Service. (n.d.). https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety.
Oyarzabal, O. A., & VanRenterghem, B. B. (2021, February 22). The meaning of food safety. Food Safety RSS. https://www.food-safety.com/articles/6545-the-meaning-of-food-safety.
Velissariou, M. (2018, November 12). What is Clean Label? IFT.org. http://blog.ift.org/what-is-clean-label.
By: Ariel Garsow
Due to having virtual attendance options, from July 19-23, I was able to attend sessions from both the annual meeting for the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) as well as the Institute of Food Technologist’s (IFT) Food Improved by Research, Science & Technology (first) conferences. Some highlights include listening to Dr. Ertharin Cousin, a past Executive Director of the World Food Program and Ambassador to the UN agencies for FAO share how zero hunger is possible as well as learning about food ontology (a framework for naming conventions for food systems). I was not able to attend all of the sessions that I wanted to attend at these conferences. I am looking forward to watching sessions that I missed in the future.
During one of the sessions from IFT first, I was introduced to Food Science for Relief and Development (FSRD). FSRD utilizes knowledge of food science including the safe production of nutritious and culturally acceptable food from farm to fork as one of the tools to solve the wicked problem of ensuring food security for all. The publication of the Global Estimates for Foodborne Disease by the Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference (FERG) Group demonstrated that food safety needs to be a global priority. The estimated burden of foodborne disease globally was similar to that of tuberculosis and malaria (Havelaar et al., 2015). The FSRD movement broadens the current efforts in the development community by showing that food science can be applied to increase food safety and food security.
Food scientists are trained in methods to produce safe, nutritious, food consistently from raw goods to finished products. They can be valuable members on collaborative teams to work to ensure different aspects of food security. I am grateful to have the opportunity to work in the intersection between food science, data analytics, and public health whether it be writing a literature review on food safety challenges in refugee camps to collaborating with an interdisciplinary team to estimate risk factors for mycotoxin exposure. It is inspiring to hear about FSRD and the work that is being done to teach food scientists about potential opportunities in the field as well as seeing how food scientists are partnering with others to work to ensure food security.
Havelaar, A. H., Kirk, M. D., Torgerson, P. R., Gibb, H. J., Hald, T., Lake, R. J., Praet, N., Bellinger, D. C., de Silva, N. R., Gargouri, N., Speybroeck, N., Cawthorne, A., Mathers, C., Stein, C., Angulo, F. J., Devleesschauwer, B., & on behalf of World Health Organization Foodborne Disease Burden Epidemiology Reference Group. (2015). World Health Organization Global Estimates and Regional Comparisons of the Burden of Foodborne Disease in 2010. PLOS Medicine, 12(12), e1001923. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001923
Tzertzeveli, Stella. (2020). Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/photos/ORC9DyZXG-I
Before I began working on my MPH, I knew very little about how foodborne disease outbreaks (or any outbreaks for that matter) were investigated. I just assumed that health departments would compare lab test results from a large group of people that got sick and look for commonalities in the foods they consumed or activities in which they participated. However, during my MPH and through my work at CFI, I have gained a greater knowledge and appreciation for the work that goes into an outbreak investigation. As a result, I would like to share a brief overview of the “Anatomy of an Outbreak Investigation” so that you might better appreciate the work that goes into such an investigation.
Outbreak Investigations can be divided into 3 main phases: descriptive, analytical, and intervention. The descriptive phase is first and is focused on information and data gathering. The analytical phase follows and uses the data gathered during the descriptive phase to look for potential risk factors and areas for intervention. The final phase, intervention, uses the results of the analytical phase to make more targeted interventions to try to halt the outbreak and stop the spread. I will now dive in and provide a little more detail on what occurs during the 3 phases.
The first step of the descriptive phase (and of any outbreak investigation) is to determine if an outbreak is occurring. Here, it is worth mentioning the definition of an outbreak. An outbreak or epidemic occurs when we see levels of a disease above what is expected. For example, we expect to have a certain number of flu cases each flu season. However, if we see higher levels of flu than expected (as with 2009-2010 H1N1), an outbreak is declared. In the case of the 2009-2010 H1N1 outbreak, because it was an epidemic or outbreak affecting the whole world, we refer to it as a pandemic. Right, so back to step 1. To understand an outbreak is occurring, we must know if the number of cases of a disease is higher than we expect. For foodborne disease, this is done through surveillance systems such as FoodNet and PulseNet. Each year, we expect a certain number of sporadic cases of the various foodborne pathogens (Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, etc.) based on trends from previous years. If we ever see an unexpected spike in cases, the alarm is sounded, and an outbreak is declared. Outbreaks can also be declared when a specific strain of a pathogen is detected in several, seemingly unrelated people. This is done using PulseNet which sequences pathogens recovered from sick individuals. If the same sequence appears in multiple individuals, an outbreak can be declared.
The next step of the descriptive phase is to create a case definition and identify your outbreak cases. Setting an appropriate case definition is an important step as making the definition too inclusive may overload the system and overestimate the size of the outbreak. However, making the definition too exclusive will leave out cases and valuable data. Using simple, objective criteria for the case definition is the best way to ensure systematic and uniform inclusion of cases. The case definition can also evolve over time as more is learned about an outbreak. For example, if an outbreak of Salmonella were occurring, you might start with a case definition of any individual with lab-confirmed Salmonella matching the outbreak strain. Then as you learn risk-factors and potential source foods, you can target the case definition to be any individuals with lab-confirmed Salmonella matching the outbreak strain who ate certain foods or attended a specific event.
Once the cases are identified, you want to begin part 3 of the descriptive phase, describing the occurrence of disease in time and place. Here is where you will find the “epidemic curve,” a plot showing cases over time, as well as maps showing spatial trends in the outbreak. In a foodborne outbreak investigation, investigators will also conduct interviews with confirmed cases to obtain information on what they ate, how they prepared food, if they attended any events or restaurants, etc. These interviews are performed by local health departments and contain questions based on previous foodborne contamination events in order to avoid bias and better direct questions. The information gathered here will aid investigators in the analytical phase of the investigation.
Speaking of the analytical phase, that is the next stop in our outbreak investigation. This phase has two steps: hypothesis generation and hypothesis testing. Using the epidemiological data collected in phase 1, investigators try to answer the following questions:
- What is the cause of the outbreak? (what is the pathogen or infectious agent?)
- What is the source of the outbreak? (common point source or multiple sources?)
- How did the outbreak spread? (what is the transmission pathway?)
- What are the risk factors associated with the outbreak?
The goal behind answering these questions is to identify key components of the outbreak in order to inform the third and final phase of the outbreak investigation.
The last phase of an outbreak investigation is the intervention phase. Similar to the previous phase, there are 2 parts to the intervention phase: implementing control and prevention measures and communicating the findings. The goal of any outbreak investigation is to stop the outbreak from spreading and limit the number of illnesses and deaths. Information gathered during the previous two phases of the investigation informs the interventions of the third phase. For example, in foodborne disease outbreaks, once investigators learn the source of an outbreak (i.e. romaine lettuce from Yuma, AZ), they will advise people to avoid food from that source until corrective action is taken. In cases where there is a food processor or company behind the outbreak, investigators will gather enough information to convince the processor or company to make a voluntary recall in order to help prevent the spread.
Lastly, it is crucial to communicate the findings from any outbreak investigation. As humans, we can make mistakes while learning along the way. In an outbreak investigation, mistakes may get made and there may be things the investigators wished they had done differently. By communicating and reporting on the outbreak as it happened, future investigations can be aided by the knowledge gained during previous investigations. Once the final numbers are in and reported, the outbreak investigation can be closed. Hopefully now you have a better understanding of how outbreaks are investigated and the work that goes into completing such an investigation. If you would like to dive deeper into how outbreak investigations occur, I recommend starting at the CDC’s website at the following link: https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/outbreaks/investigating-outbreaks/investigations/index.html#anchor_1529592062
Graduate Research Associate
By: Allison Howell
In 2011, the FAO released a report with a startling statistic: nearly 1/3 of food produced in the world is wasted or lost. Since then, reducing food waste has become a hot topic 1. One popular method of reducing the amount of food waste sent to landfills at the consumer level is composting. Composting is a process of converting organic waste, such as fruits, vegetables and yard waste like leaves and grass clippings into a mixture for promoting plant growth, a “natural” fertilizer. This fertilizer can then be used to provide fuel for your plants, vegetable gardens, or window boxes. While commercially produced and distributed compost is subject to regulation by the Ohio EPA, compost created at a home residence is not subject to regulation or inspection. Without any sort of regulation into the safety of home-generated compost, risk arises in using the compost for vegetable or herb gardens, where the plant grown is intended to be consumed.
Today, there are lots of options for individuals to start composting. A quick search for “home composting” reveals a plethora of articles and guides for individuals to start composting. Some require the use of compost bins which can cost anywhere from $60 to upwards of $200, but you can also find DIY guides that require only space, time, and lots of browns (carbon-rich materials like leaves, newspapers, and twigs) and greens ( nitrogen or protein rich materials like grass clippings, fruit and veggie scraps, or egg shells).2 The EPA provides guidance on which waste items can be composted at home and which should not. While most yard and food scraps can be composted, some should be avoided for food safety and feasibility reasons. Dairy and meat may be hosts for harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. coli. Composting contaminated foods would lead to the spread of pathogens onto the crops that is fertilized. Moreover, composting these items can attract pests or insects to the compost, which could again lead to transmission of pathogens.
However, for those low on space or time, but rich in browns and greens, community composting groups have begun to pop up in some neighborhoods. The mechanics of composting are the same, but the logistics make composting much easier (and possibly less stinky) for consumers. Composting programs such as the Compost Exchange in Columbus, Ohio provide subscribers with a plastic bucket and compostable liners to collect compostable materials and then collect the contents of the bucket to be composted at their own facility. Programs like this are becoming quite popular. A 2019 report from US Public Interest Research Group revealed that the number of communities offering composting programs like Columbus’ Compost Exchange has grown by 65 percent over the last five years3.
So what exactly happens to the compost generated by at-home composters or community composting groups?
- If you compost at home, you can reap the benefits of your hard work and use the compost as you wish to fertilize plants. Most composting groups also make the final compost product available to those that helped contribute the browns and greens necessary, sometimes free and sometimes for a small fee.
The final piece of this composting puzzle is where the food safety questions begin to arise. Here are some common questions about composting and food safety.
- Is it safe to use homemade compost as a fertilizer for home-grown fruits and vegetables?
- Probably. If you composted the correct materials and incorporated an appropriate amount of air and water to your compost.
- What if I accidentally composted something that I shouldn’t have? Can I still use my compost as fertilizer for plants that will be eaten?
- It depends. There are various reasons why certain items should not be composted and the resulting risk of incorrectly composting an item may vary based on that reason. To be safe, it would be best to not use for growing food, though you could use it for flowers or decorative plants.
- How do I know that my compost is ready to be used as fertilizer? If I use it before it’s ready, am I going to get sick?
- Compost is ready to use after it no longer resembles the starting materials, but looks like potting soil. It should feel cool and crumbly when touched4. It’s unlikely that compost contains pathogenic bacteria that could make you sick, but it could happen. There is always chance food could make us sick, and it is possible that harmful bacteria may be present in a compost heap at some time or another.
The rise of composting as a mechanism for reducing food loss (see the important distinction between food loss and food waste here), is a great advancement towards creating a more sustainable food system. But this excitement must be balanced with a conservative approach to and consideration of how composting might affect the safety of food, which it is used to fertilize down the line. To quote a 2018 review article on the topic “Understanding the mechanisms of pathogen survival during the composting process and mechanisms that reduce pathogen populations can minimize the risk of pathogen contamination in the cultivation of fruits and vegetables”5. An aptly-titled 2020 article from Food Safety News “Cook your compost to the same temperature as your burgers” provided several important calls to action for individuals looking to start composting. However, the first action item cited by Brian Bonner is to “educate yourself on composting’s benefits and risks” is perhaps the most important6. The act of composting is positioned uniquely between two major areas of food studies: food safety and food loss and waste. To make responsible decisions and minimize food safety risk while maximizing the benefit of reducing food waste and loss, education is an imperative first step. Learning about and incorporating an understanding of food safety risk in your approach to composting can help ensure that the compost generated by your efforts best nourishes plants without introducing additional food safety risks to the friends, family, or even strangers that may end up consuming compost-fertilized produce.
1. Food Loss and Food Waste. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
2. Vanderlinden, C. Which Items Are ‘Greens’ and Which Are ‘Browns’ for Composting? The Spruce
3. Composting in America | U.S. PIRG.
4. Composting | NRCS.
5. Gurtler, J. B. et al. Composting To Inactivate Foodborne Pathogens for Crop Soil Application: A Review. J Food Prot 81, 1821–1837 (2018).
6. Bonner, Brian. Cook your compost to the same temperature as your burgers. Food Safety News
Graduate Research Associate
By: Ariel Garsow
Looking at the back of a package of frozen food, there can be detailed instructions. Are these instructions important to follow for food safety?
What labels mean
Frozen foods are separated into categories based on how they need to be cooked for food safety. Some are ready to eat, like yummy Dino Buddies (although many would prefer cooked Dino Buddies), while others, like Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli need to be cooked before they are ready to be consumed. You can tell if an item is ready to be consumed by looking at the front of the package for a label that says fully cooked (circled in red in the photo below).
On the other hand, the Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli needs to be cooked thoroughly before it is consumed (circled in red in the photo below).
Reason for the directions
The cooking instructions on a package of frozen food are created to optimize safety and quality for the consumer in order to ensure that food is safe and the ideal texture and taste of the food is achieved. If you are anything like me, the part that I want to skip the most in the directions on the back of a package of frozen food is the stir and put the item back in the microwave.
There is a reason for this step. Heating is not even in a microwave. Many microwaves have turn tables to mitigate these temperature differences and allow for more even heating of foods. The picture below shows the result of a simulation of the temperature differences throughout a microwave with a potato in it (COMSOL, 2017). The red spots show hotter areas while the blue spots demonstrate colder areas in the microwave.
This is why Lean Cuisine Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli in their directions states that after stirring, the product needs to be “cook[ed] again for 1:30 minutes on high.”
One note on stirring: the product is not completely cooked after the first cook step. For reduction of risk of foodborne illness, the utensil being used to stir should be washed before it is used again.
There is a higher risk of foodborne illness if you consume foods that are not prepared according to the manufacturer’s instructions. In March 2016, an outbreak of listeriosis was found to be caused by individuals that ate frozen sweet corn and green peas. Listeria monocytogenes can cause serious health effects such as death and miscarriage in vulnerable populations such as pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
I hope the next time you pull out your frozen meal from the microwave, you understand the importance of waiting for the food to be fully cooked to reduce your risk of foodborne illness.
COMSOL. (2017). The Microwave Heating Principle. Multiphysics Cyclopedia. https://www.comsol.com/multiphysics/microwave-heating
Lean Cuisine. (n.d.). Alfredo Pasta with Chicken & Broccoli. https://www.goodnes.com/lean-cuisine/products/alfredo-pasta-chicken-broccoli/
Yummy Dino Buddies. (2018). Gluten Free Dinosaur Nuggets. https://www.yummydinobuddies.com/products
Graduate Research Associate