The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently awarded a five-year, $241,000 grant to a team of food science researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst to create a graduate training program that will combine laboratory research and practical application to help producers and processors improve the safety of fresh produce in the food supply.
Amanda Kinchla, extension assistant professor of food science, will lead the advanced training project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) National Needs Graduate Fellowship Grant Program, which is intended to train “the next generation of policy makers, researchers and educators in the food and agricultural sciences.”
As she explains, the Centers for Disease Control report that fresh produce is the leading cause of food-borne illness, and the Food and Drug Administration has begun to adopt new rules to address this by shifting its focus, from responding to contamination to preventing it, as called for in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011.
“This is the first time that there has been a food regulation specific for produce,” Kinchla notes, “and there are challenges to implementing some of the proposed FSMA regulations. The demand for improved food safety continues to increase, making it the most significant change in a long time for the produce industry.”
She adds, “Even if small farms will be exempt from regulation for now, buyers and consumers want accountability. With this program, we will train two master’s and two doctoral student fellows who will do the laboratory research and also will have extension experiences that are targeted to collaborate directly with growers and processors on feasibility and implementation. We hope to offer tested, validated methods that satisfy new food safety requirements as they come along, to help farmers and growers reduce food safety risks in an affordable but science-based way.”
Congressman Jim McGovern saluted UMass Amherst as “a leader in food science research,” and adds, “This award will help them to continue this work. Investing in this new graduate training program will expand academic opportunities for students, support local farmers and growers and ensure Massachusetts families continue to have access to the safest and freshest foods. I am grateful to the USDA for recognizing the excellent research UMass Amherst is leading and look forward to seeing this program grow.”
Kinchla and food science researchers Julie Goddard, Sam Nugen and David Sela will develop a challenging curriculum that integrates research, coursework and food science extension experience, she says. Another goal is to recruit and retain high-potential students from underrepresented populations into the new curriculum. “We look forward to sending some very highly qualified scientists into the field,” she notes.
The UMass Amherst researchers will recruit the four food science fellows in the coming academic year and hope to have them on campus for the fall semester in 2016.
The NIFA fellows will learn sophisticated laboratory techniques in such areas as microbial ecology, researching and developing new contaminant detection sensors, improving sanitation through surface modification and other food safety research that will improve practices relevant to the produce industry.
Kinchla says, “Massachusetts is a small farm state, and I have been very interested in working closely with farmers and growers, listening to how we can help them. One of the things we want to study is the relationship of food-borne pathogens to soil amendments such as raw manure, which has a high risk of containing Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.”
She adds, “Produce safety is challenging as not all produce use the same processes. For example, what might be a good sanitizer dosage lettuce may not be the same as for tomatoes, thus preventing standardized practices for all produce.”
The fellows will test best practices of post-harvest food handing to reduce risks while also containing cost, she notes. Kinchla hopes the fellows will partner with produce growers and others in the real world to address real problems and build a bridge between research and application.