Penn State Extension helps food companies supply safe, healthy foods

Thanks to Pennsylvania's strong agricultural industry, state residents enjoy an abundance of fresh, safe, quality foods. It can be easy to take the safety of the food supply for granted, but food companies -- with help from Penn State -- work hard to ensure the products they provide are as safe to consume as they are healthful and delicious.

Penn State Extension food safety educators play a major role in educating and supporting food handlers and producers throughout the commonwealth in safe food practices.

"Penn State has one of the top food science programs in the country," said Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Extension is a trusted source because we provide unbiased, science-based information, and we work hard as a group to stay current on food safety issues and best practices. We provide that critical connection to science for everyone working with food, whether it's a large company, an entrepreneur operating a food cart, a community organization or church group, or an individual doing home canning."

Extension offers a variety of training programs throughout the state, including a basic class on food safety and sanitation, a certification class for food processors, ServSafe certification for retail food handlers, HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) training, and Cooking for Crowds, which is aimed at volunteer groups such as churches, fire companies and civic organizations in every county.

But it's not just about the training. Penn State Extension goes beyond training programs to provide follow-up support. Classes and workshops often serve as a gateway to ongoing relationships. "We don't go in and do a training and disappear -- we're here if someone has a question down the road, whether it means providing a second opinion, helping to solve a problem or visiting a facility," Bucknavage said.

"I find that many of the people who take classes really consider themselves Penn Staters -- they feel as much a part of Penn State as our graduates do. And we want them to feel that way. They like to come back to campus, and we always welcome them."

Following are three examples of how Penn State's food safety extension programs support three Pennsylvania food companies: a major mushroom producer, the largest kosher poultry producer in the United States, and a full-service wholesale supplier of fresh produce.

Bill Green, quality assurance manager, Giorgi Mushrooms

"Mushrooms are the No. 1 cash commodity in Pennsylvania. This industry means a lot to Pennsylvania's agriculture community, and Penn State Extension understands the importance of training mushroom workers and the challenges of staying ahead of the requirements. In an industry where these challenges and requirements seem to change with every food recall, it is awesome to know the Penn State folks are always working on new material to assure that our industry remains one that is committed to safe and quality products.

"Small mushroom farms that are critical to the industry's supply chain would not be able to afford to send workers to University Park to be trained, so it's great that Penn State Extension offers a one-day workshop on mushroom food safety and a two-day HACCP training each year in the Kennett Square area. Employees can be trained by Penn State educators on material specific to the mushroom industry. Hundreds of mushroom workers have gotten a food safety training certificate through Extension's program over the past several years. These training programs are an invaluable resource to the mushroom industry."

food safety guy

It's not just about training. Penn State Extension goes beyond training programs to provide follow-up support. Classes and workshops often serve as a gateway to ongoing relationships.

Image: Penn State

Tim Ahern, director of quality assurance and technical services, Empire Kosher Poultry Inc.

"About three years ago, Empire Kosher Poultry asked me to change from plant management to director of quality assurance and technical services. I had studied biology in college, but that was back in the '80s. Obviously, my recollection of the subject matter was a little vague, but I have always had great interest in microbiology and food science. I accepted the position, and I have taken Penn State's Fundamentals of Food Science short course and the Food Microbiology short course over the last two years. Those were instrumental in acclimating me back into the food science part of the business.

"Dr. Cutter [Catherine Cutter, professor of food science and extension food safety specialist for meats] has helped me solve some spoilage issues with our poultry products, and Dr. Bill Henning [professor emeritus of dairy and animal science] spends a day every couple of weeks helping me make needed changes from a processing authority standpoint. Penn State's food science department and staff are key components to Empire's recent successes in improving our processing operations."

Jessica Britz, food safety specialist, Four Seasons Produce Inc.

"Penn State Extension has played a key role in getting our local Amish growers certified under GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) standards. Four Seasons is a wholesaler of fresh produce, and most of our retail customers had begun to request only GAP-certified produce. Yet because of the complexity of the GAP standards, our local Amish growers were somewhat apprehensive.

To overcome this obstacle, Penn State Extension developed a template that walked the growers through the GAP standards in an understandable manner. This program had a high success rate and has grown in popularity.

"The scientific knowledge that food safety extension educators have -- along with their connections to academia, private industry and regulatory bodies -- makes them an invaluable resource. I have attended the Food and Airborne Fungi and Mycotoxins short course and the Food Microbiology short course, and they were extremely useful in teaching me how to take samples and test for and identify specific microbes, processes I apply to my daily work. These courses are also excellent networking opportunities -- it's so helpful to have the chance to discuss problems you encounter and to hear how others facing similar issues have resolved them."

Penn State Extension provides information and support to people and businesses in every county in Pennsylvania. More information about extension food safety programs is available online.

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Last Updated March 26, 2015