The Role of the Cooperative Extension in Food Safety
By Ellen Thomas and Ben Chapman, Ph.D.
Land-grant universities in the United States were established with the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. Their mission was to educate the public on subjects of agriculture, home economics and other practical tasks in the home—to literally extend research and help families across the country. While food safety was not initially within the mission’s scope, food safety has a strong and intertwined history within land-grant universities and Cooperative Extension.
In 1890, Professor Stephen M. Babcock at the University of Wisconsin invented a device that tested the butterfat content of milk quickly and efficiently. He shared this technology with the university and dairy industry throughout the state, creating an open and engaging relationship between the university and the public that continues to this day.
In the early 1900s, advocates began to call for better-quality milk, as well as bringing milk sanitation laws and training inspectors to be consistent in how they enforced regulations. This led to creation of the International Association of Dairy and Milk Inspectors in 1912 (the precursor to the International Association of Food Protection). One of the nation’s greatest challenges was how to obtain the most technical, up-to-date information, and to effectively communicate it to dairy farmers.
In addition to teaching and research, land-grant universities have a long tradition of connecting academics and research to the masses, originally in largely rural areas through a delivery mechanism known as extension; 2014 marks 100 years of the Cooperative Extension system in the United States. The Smith-Lever Act in 1914 further solidified the role of extension in land-grant universities by creating a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in which USDA would provide funds to each state to carry out extension work.
In North Carolina, strong extension programs emerged from canning clubs and corn clubs. These organizations were effective in providing useful information for those interested in home preservation, increasing crop yields, volunteerism and community fellowship. The clubs later developed into 4-H. The structure and overall group principles of 4-H were defined in 1919 at a meeting in Kansas City. Today, 4-H reaches 7 million American children and includes groups in rural, urban and suburban communities in every state; youth are exposed to a wide variety of topics in agriculture and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
During World War I, extension helped increase crop yields and home preserving, as well as the organization of groups to fill gaps in the labor force. Extension helped create farming cooperatives and provided instruction on home practices to aid families during the Depression. During World War II, extension dramatically increased food production as part of the Victory Garden program.
In the 1960s, Rutgers University extension agricultural engineer William Roberts revolutionized greenhouse farming with the innovation of pumping air between plastic films. Approximately 65 percent of commercial greenhouses throughout the world use this technology today. Further similar greenhouse technology developments continued under Roberts in the years that followed.
In 1969, President Lyndon Johnson began the Expanded Food Nutrition Extension Program (EFNEP) as part of his War on Poverty. Program assistants were trained to teach nutrition and food safety, and to promote overall wellness. EFNEP now operates in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Northern Marianas and Micronesia. There are both adult and youth programs with the goal of promoting high-quality diets among audiences with lower incomes and limited access to resources.
The Master Gardener program began at Washington State University in the 1970s with the idea to train volunteers in horticulture to educate the public to reach a larger audience. The curriculum included culturing plants, fruits and vegetables, and grasses; how to deal with pests, diseases and weeds; and how to safely administer pesticides. The curriculum was administered by state- and county-based faculty. Over time, the program has grown, gaining more recognition; it is now sponsored across the United States and Canada. The program structure has also been extended to other portions of extension, such as food preservation.
In 1988, listeriosis, a highly infectious and potentially serious illness caused by the bacterium Listeria, was linked to hot dogs and deli meats. The tragic outbreak included 108 cases, with 14 deaths and 4 miscarriages or stillbirths. Researchers at Colorado State University conducted extensive experiments to characterize Listeria and explore methods of mitigating its prevalence in foods. High-risk groups, particularly pregnant women, were the focus, and suggestions for reducing risk, such as heating deli meats before consumption, were distributed in extension fact sheets nationally.
Kansas State University enjoys a strong relationship with a variety of meat producers, which has been building over the past few decades. Meat science faculty engage in research related to meat quality, sensory evaluation, meat safety, color stability, packaging and numerous other factors related to meat from slaughter to handling at home. The department offers courses on campus and through distance learning, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points courses throughout the Midwest and value-added services for meat processors. The department has been releasing papers on optimal equipment for small producers, handling wild game and other technologies since the 1990s.
With the increase of foodborne illness associated with produce in the 1990s and 2000s, the University of California, Davis, established the Center for Produce Safety in 2007, which integrates industry, government and academic research with the ultimate goal of maximizing produce yields while maintaining the best quality and safety of product. The center provides short courses, workshops and certifications for produce growers, related to quality, postharvest technology and safety, and has funded numerous research projects.
Extension faces many challenges and opportunities as the system moves into its second century. While state and federal appropriations and other funding streams have decreased recently, agriculture has also changed—less than 2 percent of Americans are farmers today. The Food Safety Modernization Act, with the goal of making food safer, will provide many food businesses with new regulations to comply with. Cooperative Extension will continue to play an integral part in assisting businesses (especially the small and very small) to assess and manage food safety issues—and help consumers understand what goes into making food safe. Extension programs across the country have also increased their social media presence, continue to provide evidence-based recommendations and conduct applied research that affects food from farm to fork. Extension has adapted to numerous changes over the past century, taking the lead in bringing new food safety technologies to agriculture and food production worldwide.
Ellen Thomas is a Ph.D. candidate in food science at North Carolina State University (NCSU).
Ben Chapman, Ph.D., is an associate professor and food safety specialist at NCSU, as well as a self-described food safety nerd.