Arianne Corbett 2013-01-29 04:20:55
Food Safety Takes “Center” Stage Applied research to aid school nutrition operations is on the way Most school nutrition professionals know the mantra for chilling hot foods—135°F to 70°F in two hours, and then 70°F to 41°F in four more hours…—in fact, you can probably recite that in your sleep! But what is the most effective way to chill taco meat or spaghetti sauce? Should you use an ice water bath? A shallow pan, 4-in. deep? Does it make a difference if the pan is covered? Do you really know? These are the types of questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service’s (USDA/FNS) Office of Food Safety receive every day. While many food safety practices have standard answers that have been deemed the norm for years, often, there is little or no scientific evidence to actually support the practice or procedure. To solve this problem and seek evidence-based solutions to everyday concerns, FNS established the Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research in Child Nutrition Programs. The Center conducts research to develop science-based strategies and benchmarks that will improve food safety for various FNS-administered federal nutrition assistance programs. Its main goal is to conduct applied studies that will help resolve food safety issues in schools and other child nutrition programs. The research then will be used to develop training and technical assistance for foodservice operators and better inform scientists, policymakers and educators about the unique food safety aspects that affect child nutrition operations. After all, the face of school nutrition is changing. With exciting new initiatives such as farm-to-school programs, school gardens, locally sourced procurement and a renewed focus on scratch cooking, food safety practices must keep pace. K-State Takes Charge In April 2011, FNS selected Kansas State University as the site for the Center of Excellence. K-State, as it’s widely known, is uniquely positioned to house the Center due to its interdisciplinary team of experts and strong commitment to food safety research, from farm to fork. “K-State is the ideal spot for the Center,” says Dr. Kevin Roberts, director of the new initiative. “We can draw from more than 50 nationally and internationally recognized faculty from five colleges and 13 departments involved in food safety research. These scientists and teachers will also help get the results of our research to a variety of targeted groups, such as policymakers, practitioners and school foodservice directors.” FNS already has tapped into this wide base of expertise. During the agency-hosted Produce Safety University trainings, instructors frequently fielded questions about the best method to wash produce. They put the question to the team at the Center, which turned to the K-State experts. A new study was developed to examine the efficacy of different strategies for cleaning produce. K-State researchers are now testing the impact of plain water washing, ozonated water washing and chemical rinses (like the popular consumer and foodservice Fit® wash product) on cantaloupe, leafy greens and tomatoes. The results of the research will be used to train foodservice professionals to use the most effective method and reduce the risk for foodborne illness outbreaks. Into the Field Over the last year, the Center has been full of activity. Out of the gate, the initiative launched a seven-state tour to evaluate the effectiveness of HACCP programs at 35 different schools. Researchers observed school nutrition operators in action, collected HACCP documentation and conducted surveys of both state agency directors and school nutrition directors about their HACCP programs. Why? Little is known about the status of HACCP programs in schools since these were federally mandated in 2004. This research will help FNS update current guidance materials— and it will help state agencies better evaluate food safety practices when reviewing local school food authorities for compliance. Another exciting project is a review of health inspection data from schools in 21 states. It’s not uncommon to hear from health inspectors that schools have the cleanest kitchens in town. This study seeks to prove such anecdotal reports. The study also will help identify common critical violations in schools, informing the development of better technical assistance and training to help operators overcome their unique challenges. Take another look at the questions asked at the beginning of this article about cooling taco meat and spaghetti sauce. The Center team reflected on those, too. Staff is currently analyzing common methods in school meal programs to cool food products, through the use, for example, of walk-in freezers, walk-in coolers, chill sticks, ice baths or some combination thereof. “With more and more schools transitioning to scratch cooking, we saw a need for research on cooling food,” explains Roberts. “These types of practical research questions are what the Center is designed for. Our results will be used to develop best practices for school foodservice operators. ” Upon completion of the research, the Center will be working with the National Food Service Management Institute (NFSMI) to transform the findings into training videos for school nutrition professionals. Research Into Action Indeed, NFSMI is a key partner for the Center. A long-time leader in education and training for school nutrition professionals, NFSMI is using the Center’s research to develop evidence based training videos, online courses and technical assistance modules on food safety. The Center team is proud to be addressing practical food safety issues that will have an impact on school nutrition professionals on a daily basis; the partnership with NFSMI will help turn this research into practical solutions. “NFSMI is very excited to be working with the Center of Excellence for Food Safety Research at K-State. Developing training materials based on research that is specific to the school nutrition environment will help NFSMI meet the needs of our customers,” notes Dr. Katie Wilson, SNS, NFSMI executive director and an SNA past president. A large advisory board will help to define the Center’s research agenda; among the members are several school nutrition professionals, including Lora Gilbert, SNS, senior director of food and nutrition services for Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools. Gilbert says she is already looking forward to what the new Center has to offer, recognizing how important food safety is to the health and well-being of her students. “Our standards have to be much higher than the rest of the foodservice industry, because we serve children,” she explains. Although Gilbert runs an award-winning operation, she wanted to be first in line for the Center’s HACCP program audit. “I know outside eyes and an outside perspective will help identify issues I would never see,” she says. “This type of research helps us identify where we are and where we need to be.” Even after 30 years in foodservice, Gilbert is continually striving to improve her food safety program, because in school nutrition, “You can’t get complacent.” Coming up on the second anniversary of its establishment, the Center team is looking forward to getting its research published and working with NFSMI to release new training materials. School Nutrition readers also might see Roberts and his colleagues at upcoming meetings and training sessions presenting poster sessions on their findings. The Center was represented at SNA’s 2012 Annual National Conference, as well as at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2012 annual meeting. Other big plans for the future include the possibility of new food safety courses to help school nutrition professionals understand the entire food safety system and better respond to crisis situations as they arise. The Center also hopes to develop a library of white papers that can serve as the premiere resource for evidence-based guidance on food safety practices. To connect with school nutrition professionals, the Center has stepped into the world of social networking with a Facebook page and Twitter feed. Both are updated regularly to keep school nutrition professionals updated with breaking news and hot topics in food safety. Last spring, when lean finely textured beef was in the media spotlight, the Center was quick to post facts and resources. These resources helped operators get out in front of questions and concerns from parents and local media. To stay connected with Center activities and receive these critical updates, follow it at www.twitter.com/CNSAFEFOOD or “Like” it on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cnsafefood. The Center team also encourages readers to post your own food safety questions and concerns. After all, your questions may help drive the Center’s next research initiative! For additional information, check out their website at www.cnsafefood.k-state.edu.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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