Dec. 18, 2015

New Institute for Food Safety to fight foodborne illness

NYSAES aerial
An aerial view of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.
kathryn boor
betsy bihn

Cornell University will be home to a comprehensive center combining food safety research and training for New York growers and producers, offering a farm-to-fork bulwark against foodborne illness in compliance with new, stricter federal regulations.

The Institute for Food Safety at Cornell, announced Dec. 15 with a $2 million state grant, establishes a center unique in its comprehensive approach connecting training and applied research to check the rise of foodborne illness. The institute will harness Cornell’s existing strengths across food production systems in fruits, vegetables and dairy foods to help growers and processors comply with the demands of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act.

Located at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES) in Geneva, New York, the institute will bring together Cornell scientists and extension experts to address outbreaks and proactively attend to a variety of food safety related issues through applied research, outreach and training, according to Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“The long-term vision is for the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell to become the pre-eminent source of scientific research, training and outreach in dairy and produce safety in the U.S. and beyond,” Boor said. “Accomplishing this goal will not only support economic growth of the produce and dairy industry in New York, but it will also help increase exports for dairy and produce products.”

Betsy Bihn, whose research focus has helped reduce microbial risks to fresh fruits and vegetables, will be involved in leadership of the new institute. She has an extensive background promoting public health through on-farm practices to reduce the risk of foodborne illness from contamination in the field, during harvest and during transport.

“The Institute for Food Safety at Cornell is a great opportunity to focus on our strengths to better serve New Yorkers who need food safety training and expertise to support their farms and processing businesses,” Bihn said. “There are very few places that can truly provide food safety expertise farm to fork like the Experiment Station. This institute will provide the framework to assemble all the key pieces that are already here to build a unique, valuable and much-needed resource in light of new regulations associated with the Food Safety Modernization Act.”

The 2011 bill contains five key elements to combat foodborne illness by shifting focus from contamination response to prevention. Those mandates span increased preventive controls, inspection and compliance authority, tools to ensure the safety of imported food, response through actions like recall authority for all food products, and enhanced partnerships.

NYSAES director Susan K. Brown said that the institute comes at a critical time for the agricultural industry.

“The issue of food safety has never been more important. While we have the technology to trace back to sources of contamination in our food supply, the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell will proactively help prevent such contamination from the start by providing training and the knowledge base to conduct state-of-the-art safe agricultural practices,” Brown said.

Boor applauded the work of state Sen. Michael Nozzolio ’73, M.S. ’77, R-54th Dist., for his work securing the grant: “It is thanks to Senator Nozzolio’s unflagging support that the college will be able to do truly transformative work in advancing food safety technology and innovation,” she said.

“This funding builds on the momentum created earlier this fall with the announcement of $600,000 to secure a state-of-the-art Hiperbaric High Pressure Processing machine for the Experiment Station. This combined funding is a game changer for Geneva and the central Finger Lakes region and it helps to position the Experiment Station at the forefront of food safety. The institute will become a magnet for job growth in our region,” Nozzolio said.

Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.