In just nine weeks this past summer, senior Katie Kennedy tackled an important food safety research project, one that may change the way some large food companies process their deli-style turkey meat. Not bad for a summer job.
“It was my impression that this was just going to be a pilot project, but we’re actually going to publish the results,” says Kennedy, an animal sciences major.
Kennedy was one of seven undergraduates who interned at the internationally respected Food Research Institute (FRI), which is housed in CALS and focuses on microbial food safety. The internship program, which debuted this summer, had students investigating everything from Salmonella and E. coli to Clostridium and Aspergillus.
“Training is an important part of the FRI mission,” says Chuck Czuprynski, the institute’s director. “So we decided to create an opportunity where young people can learn about—and deal with—real food safety problems.”
In Kennedy’s case, she worked with FRI mentors and scientists at Oscar Mayer Foods in Madison to tackle a challenge faced by many large meat processing facilities: keeping the growth of the foodborne pathogen Clostridium perfringens in check as large volumes of uncured, processed meats are cooled after cooking. Cooling is energy-intensive, and Kennedy’s project showed that plants can cool their deli-style turkey more slowly—but still safely—if they add some potassium lactate, a commonly used antimicrobial, to the meat.
“Oscar Mayer waited eagerly for Katie’s results,” says FRI assistant director Kathy Glass, who co-mentored Kennedy. “They provide Oscar Mayer, as well as other FRI sponsors in the meat industry, with the safety data they need to show inspectors that the cooling system they’d like to implement is indeed safe.”
Another goal of the internship program is to raise awareness about academic and professional career opportunities in the food safety field. To that end, the interns met weekly to hear from scientists in the field and also toured a handful of food processing plants.
“I was surprised that every place we visited had microbiologists and food scientists. I don’t think people realize those types of jobs are available at food processing plants,” says Brad Gietman, a medical microbiology and immunology major who spent the summer studying how long, filamentous Salmonella cells—which are found on certain foods—sometimes break apart into scores of daughter cells, increasing the risk of foodborne illness.
Both Gietman and Kennedy are continuing their lab work this fall, and Kennedy is now leaning toward doing a yearlong internship at a food company before going to veterinary school.