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Cornell receives $2.5 million grant to teach food safety

High school students in the 4-H Career Explorations program
Jason Koski/University Photography
High school students in the 4-H Career Explorations program visit campus in June to learn about food safety using DNA fingerprinting to identify foodborne pathogens.

Cornell is poised to become a hub of food safety training with a new $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Food science professor Martin Wiedmann will head a national effort in collaboration with six other universities to engage thousands of children, undergraduates, graduate students, teachers and professionals in food safety programs.

The efforts will include a new undergraduate food safety track and Master of Professional Studies degree at Cornell, as well as an expansion of a summer undergraduate research program, intensive workshops for high school teachers, and lessons at local elementary and secondary schools taught by students and faculty at the participating universities: Colorado State University, Purdue University, North Carolina State University, Alabama A&M University, North Carolina A&T and Texas Wesleyan University.

Wiedmann hopes the multi-institutional effort will build a pipeline of students interested and ready for employment in the area of food safety.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly one in six Americans -- 48 million people -- gets sick each year from foodborne diseases. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

"Despite a clear recognition of the importance of food safety for public health as well as domestic and global economies, there still is a limited supply of highly qualified, diverse and multidisciplinary trained food safety professionals," Wiedmann said.

A concerted effort will be made to ensure students come from diverse geographic and socio-economic backgrounds to fill gaps that have been identified in the industry, Wiedmann said.

Industry input will be solicited at several stages during the five-year project in the form of an advisory council with members from food companies, government agencies and industry groups. They also will be called upon to help facilitate practical learning and internship opportunities for students, domestically and abroad, Wiedmann said.

"Food science is a discipline virtually unknown to high school students, teachers and guidance counselors," Wiedmann said. "In addition, most university food science programs focus on training students for careers in product development, and very few undergraduate degree options with a focus on food safety are available."

Wiedmann expects to train at least 400 high school teachers through intensive one- and four-day workshops, as well as an additional 1,500-2,000 through presentations at annual meetings, such as the Science Teachers Association of New York State. His goal is to equip them with knowledge about food safety and provide them with activities they can use in classroom to raise awareness about food science among their students.

In addition, project members will reach out to more than 3,500 students directly through presentations in local schools, summer research programs and such efforts as 4-H Career Explorations, which recently attracted hundreds of high school students to the Cornell campus to learn about potential careers in science; it included a session in which students used DNA fingerprinting to identify foodborne pathogens.

Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences, will help develop the new graduate program in food safety, and food science lecturer and undergraduate program director Alicia Orta-Ramirez will work on an undergraduate curriculum, in conjunction with faculty at Purdue and North Carolina State University.

"We really wanted to create another option so we would be able to cater to our students who are interested in food safety, as well as to reach out to teachers so they can use these activities to alert younger students to career possibilities in food science," Orta-Ramirez said.

As part of the project, an online portal also will be developed to provide information about graduate programs, internships and career opportunities, as well as a "wiki" site with food safety information.

Stacey Shackford is a staff writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.


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