Extension expanding food-safety training far beyond U.S. borders

Sara LaJeunesse
May 14, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — You’re sitting at your favorite Italian restaurant enjoying a moist-on-the inside, crispy-on-the-outside chicken Milanese topped with a bright, lemony heap of arugula. The safety of the food you are eating does not cross your mind. But what if the arugula had been prepared on the same unwashed surface as the chicken? In the United States such a scenario would be unlikely, but in many countries around the world, restaurant patrons regularly risk being subjected to such poor food-safety practices.

“The food-safety practices that Americans take for granted — such as washing hands with soap, refrigerating perishables, and not cutting raw meat and vegetables on the same surface without disinfection — may not be practiced widely in other places around the world,” said Catherine Cutter, professor of food science and Penn State Extension assistant director for food safety and quality programs.

According to Cutter, the World Health Organization estimates that every year, 600 million people — almost one in every 10 people in the world — get sick after eating contaminated food. As a result, 420,000 die annually from foodborne illness. The lack of general food-safety knowledge and poor food-handling practices result in the deaths of approximately 125,000 children under the age of 5 every year, the international group estimates. Cutter and her colleagues in the College of Agricultural Sciences want to change that. 

Extending extension

Cutter wants to internationalize Penn State Extension, which has been vital to establishing food safety in the United States.

“Internationalization of our extension program could help to provide a safer global food supply, which not only helps to protect people in other countries, but also safeguards Americans, as some of these foods are imported to the United States,” she said.

Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs in the college, adds that offering extension programs abroad also will draw more people to Penn State’s programming and simply will give folks here the benefit of knowing that they played a part in creating healthy communities and economies for the people of this planet. “Our extension programs could make a broader impact in a way that, ultimately, will come back to us,” she said.

Deanna head shot

Deanna Behring, director of International Programs for the College of Agricultural Sciences. 

IMAGE: Penn State

As a first step in taking food-safety training abroad, Cutter’s research group in 2017 offered the Food-Safety System Management curriculum to 30 students and two instructors in the Agribusiness Teaching Center at the National Agrarian University in Yerevan, Armenia. The training, which was based on a Penn State Extension food-safety certificate program, was part of a joint venture between Penn State, Virginia Tech, and the International Center for Agribusiness and Education. The project was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Armenian lab

At the end of the program, students' food safety attitudes, skills, knowledge and behavior were judged to have improved significantly, and a follow-up survey of food safety attitude and behavior done three months later suggested the training had made a lasting difference. 

IMAGE: Penn State

Why Armenia?

“A couple years ago, a needs assessment of the food industry in Armenia indicated that graduates of the Agribusiness Teaching Center would be employable if they were trained in food safety systems management,” said Cutter. “A call went out in 2015 to other land-grant institutions about conducting a food-safety training program there, and Penn State responded. At the time, there also were a number of foodborne outbreaks and deaths from botulism, listeriosis and pathogenic E. coli in Armenia, so the need was immediate.”

To study the effectiveness of the Food-Safety System Management curriculum taught at the Agribusiness Teaching Center, Cutter and her team collected demographic data and administered a test to gauge the food-safety knowledge, behaviors and attitudes of participants prior to initiating the training. They also videotaped and scored the participants’ hand-washing techniques.

After the students completed the curriculum, the research team administered a post-test with identical questions for food-safety knowledge, behaviors and attitudes and re-assessed hand-washing skills. Throughout the program, they also gave students tours of food businesses that employ food-safety best practices.

At the end of the program, the researchers found that students’ food-safety attitudes, skills, knowledge and behaviors had improved significantly, according to lead researcher Siroj Pokharel, a postdoctoral scholar in Cutter’s research group. He noted that a follow-up survey of food-safety attitudes and behaviors performed three months later suggested the training had made a lasting difference. 

While the research findings may seem obvious to many Americans — who take for granted the food-safety techniques that are uniformly required and practiced in this country — food handlers in some countries need rudimentary training, Pokharel explained.

“There are places where people do not have that basic knowledge of how to prepare food in a safe way and prevent foodborne illness, and there was a low level of food-safety knowledge initially among the students we worked with in Armenia,” he said.

Cathy in Kitchen

Cutter is developing a comprehensive food-safety training program for laboratory personnel working in food-testing laboratories in East and South Africa. The program will utilize face-to-face training modules with lectures, breakout sessions and hands-on laboratory exercises. The World Health Organization has estimated that Africa has the highest burden of foodborne diseases.

IMAGE: Penn State

Building on the initial success, a second iteration of the Food-Safety System Management curriculum was offered to 30 more students in 2018 and conducted by two trained Armenian instructors, with some assistance from Cutter.

Zaruhi Danielyan is an Armenian student who completed the curriculum this year. In an article in the January 2018 issue of International Center for Agribusiness and Education News, Danielyan writes about the skills she and her classmates acquired through the course, including understanding the biology of dangerous food-related microbes; knowing the types of sanitation measures that are needed to ensure that surfaces and equipment that come into contact with food are properly cleaned, sanitized and maintained; and how to detect allergens, among other topics.

“We live in a society where food safety is still a serious challenge, and there is no all-encompassing national food-safety system covering the entire food chain, from soil to fork,” she wrote. “Armed with the Penn State and Virginia Tech Food-Safety System Management certificate, the proper knowledge, and the will to change the country, my friends and I will join the army of professionals in their combat against illiteracy in food safety.”

Shifting the food-safety paradigm

Danielyan is among the first graduates with a Penn State/Virginia Tech Food-Safety System Management certificate to enter the workforce in Armenia. Cutter’s hope is that many more Armenian students will follow, and that this will lead to improved food safety and economic viability within the country. Beginning in September 2018, the curriculum will be integrated into the overall curriculum of the Agribusiness Teaching Center and taught solely by local instructors. 

“We phased ourselves out so the instructors at the Agribusiness Teaching Center could take over,” said Cutter. “Students now will get three-to-four hours of food safety every day for an entire semester.”

As for Cutter’s and Pokharel’s study on the Armenian implementation of the curriculum? The team recently published its results in the Journal of Food Science Education, and it already is proving to be of interest inside and outside of Armenia. Education experts, extension professionals, food-industry personnel and regulatory agencies around the globe are using the model to develop and disseminate their own international food-safety programs.

Armenian food handlers

While the research findings may seem obvious to many Americans — who take for granted the food-safety techniques that are uniformly required and practiced in this country — food handlers in some countries need rudimentary training like these Armenian college students received.. 

IMAGE: Penn State

Cutter plans to replicate the program in Ukraine, beginning in June 2018, with financial assistance from the Woskob New Century Fund, an endowment within the College of Agricultural Sciences created by the Woskob family to promote partnerships among Penn State and institutions in the Ukraine.

“The executive committee that helps steer that endowment in the college has decided that the training Penn State prepared in Armenia could be very valuable to our partners in Ukraine,” said Behring.

Meeting the needs of other countries 

While training the next generation of food-industry professionals in food-safety best practices is important, Cutter also sees a need to help those who already are working in the food industry. In Latin America, for example, Cutter is developing fact sheets and videos in Spanish to help prepare countries for the Food and Drug Administration’s new Food Safety Modernization Act regulations. “Any country that wants to export to the United States has to meet the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act requirements for shipping produce,” said Cutter.

In addition, Cutter is developing a comprehensive food-safety training program for laboratory personnel working in food-testing laboratories in East and South Africa. The program will utilize face-to-face training modules with lectures, breakout sessions and hands-on laboratory exercises. 

According to Cutter, the World Health Organization has estimated that Africa has the highest burden in foodborne diseases. “To combat foodborne illness, it is important to revamp the proven scientific methods in Africa to handle, prepare and store food,” she said. “Training of laboratory personnel to detect biological and chemical hazards, to assess data, and to make recommendations based on the laboratory findings is crucial.”

While Penn State Extension continues to place a priority on serving the needs of Pennsylvania and the United States, it has the potential to adapt its programming to reach the world. Cutter said she is in communication with representatives of several other nations about the possibility of implementing Extension’s food-safety programs in their countries. “The bottom line is that food safety is a global issue,” she said, “and Penn State can make a big difference in the world.”

  • right rail, Armenia

    Researchers presented the training to fourth-year college agribusiness students who had a low level of food safety knowledge.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 14, 2018