Breeding for Flavor

On a sticky weekday morning in August, a new restaurant called Estrellón (“big star” in Spanish) is humming with advanced prep and wine deliveries. All wood and tile and Mediterranean white behind a glass exterior, the Spanish-style eatery is the fourth venture of Madison culinary star Tory Miller. Opening is just three days away, and everything is crisp and shiny and poised.

But in the dining room, the culinary focus is already years beyond this marquee event. This morning is largely about creating the perfect tomato. Graduate students from UW–Madison working on a new program called the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative have set the table with large sheets of white paper and pens. At each place setting are a dozen small plastic cups of tomatoes, diced as if for a taco bar. Each container is coded.

Chef Miller takes a seat with colleagues Jonny Hunter of the Underground Food Collective and Dan Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. The chefs are here to lend their highend taste buds to science, and they start to banter about tomato flavor. What are the key elements? How important are they relative to each other?

Despite their intense culinary dedication, these men rarely just sit down and eat tomatoes with a critical frame of mind. “I learned a lot about taste through this project,” says Hunter. “I really started thinking about how I defined flavor in my own head and how I experience it.”

This particular tasting was held last summer. And there have been many others like it over the past few years with Miller, Hunter, Bonanno and Eric Benedict BS’04, of Café Hollander.

The sessions are organized by Julie Dawson, a CALS/UW–Extension professor of horticulture who heads the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative (formerly called the Chef–Farmer–Plant Breeder Collaborative). Her plant breeding team from CALS will note the flavors and characteristics most valuable to the chefs. Triangulating this with feedback from select farmers, plant breeders will get one step closer to the perfect tomato. But not just any tomato: One bred for Upper Midwest organic growing conditions, with flavor vetted by some of our most discerning palates.

“We wanted to finally find a good red, round slicer, and tomatoes that look and taste like heirlooms but aren’t as finicky to grow,” says Dawson at the August tasting, referring to the tomato of her dreams. “We’re still not at the point where we have, for this environment, really exceptional flavor and optimal production characteristics.”

Nationwide, the tomato has played a symbolic role in a widespread reevaluation of our food system. The pale, hard supermarket tomatoes of January have been exhibit A in discussions about low-wage labor and food miles. Seasonally grown heirloom tomatoes have helped us understand how good food can be with a little attention to detail.

But that’s just the tip of the market basket, because Dawson’s project seeks to strengthen a middle ground—an Upper Midwest ground, actually—in the food system. With chefs, farmers and breeders working together, your organic vegetables should get tastier, hardier, more abundant and more local where these collaborations exist.

Julie Dawson decided she wanted to be a farmer at age 8. By her senior year in high school she was hooked on plant breeding and working in the Cornell University lab of Molly Jahn—now a professor of agronomy at CALS—on a project developing heat tolerance in beans. Dawson stayed at Cornell for college and continued to work for Jahn and Margaret Smith, a corn breeder who was working with the Iroquois to resurrect traditional breeds. By the time she finished college, Dawson had a strong background in both plant breeding and participatory research. During her graduate education at Washington State University she began breeding wheat for organic systems. As a postdoc in France, she started working on participatory breeding with bakers and farmers, focusing on organic and artisanal grains.

In September of 2013, barely unpacked in Madison, Dawson found herself traveling with CALS horticulture professor and department chair Irwin Goldman PhD’91 to a conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture north of New York City.

Organized by food impresario Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, the conference gathered chefs and breeders from across the country to talk about flavor. Barber knew what could happen when chefs and breeders talked because he was already working with Dawson’s graduate advisor at Washington State, wheat breeder Stephen S. Jones.

In the 1950s, as grocery stores replaced corner markets and California’s Central Valley replaced truck gardens, the vegetable market began to value sizes and shapes that were more easily processed and packed. That a tomato could be picked early in Florida and ripen during the boxcar ride to Illinois was more important than how it tasted. Pesticides and fertilizers also became more common, buffering differences between farms and providing a more uniform environment. Packing houses and national wholesalers dominated the market, and vegetable breeding followed.

Breeders have at their disposal a huge variety of natural traits—things like color, sugar content and hardiness. Over the course of decades they can enhance or inhibit these traits. But the more traits they try to control, the more complex the breeding. And flavor has been neglected over the last few decades in favor of traits that benefit what has become our conventional food system. “Breeders were targeting a different kind of agricultural system,” explains Dawson.

Barber wanted to reverse that trend, to connect farmers and plant breeders and chefs. It appealed to Dawson’s sense of where food should be going. “Breeding for standard shapes and sizes and shipping ability doesn’t mean that breeders aren’t interested in flavor,” she says. “It just means that the market doesn’t make it a priority.”

New to Madison, Dawson hadn’t met Tory Miller, but they connected at the Stone Barns Center, and together realized Madison was the perfect place to pursue this focus on flavor: A strong local food movement supporting a dynamic and growing number of farms, world-class chefs, and—through CALS’ Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics Program—one of the highest concentrations of public plant breeders in the world.

They decided to get started in the summer of 2014 by growing a collective palette of many varieties of the most common vegetables. Dawson approached the breeders, Miller rallied the chefs, and both reached out to their network of farmers. “The main idea of the project is to get more informal collaboration between farmers and plant breeders and chefs—to get the conversation started,” says Dawson. “We can really focus on flavor.”

When the chefs are done tasting tomatoes, they wander over to a table of corn and cucumber. They are magnetized by the different kinds of corn: an Iroquois variety, another type that is curiously blue, and large kernels of a corn called choclo, which is very popular in the Andes.

These are just a few jewels from the collection amassed over four decades by CALS corn breeder Bill Tracy, who works in both conventional and organic sweet corn. Tracy leads the world’s largest research program focused on the breeding and genetics of organic sweet corn, with five organically focused cultivars currently on the market. He was recently named the nation’s first endowed chair for organic plant breeding, with a $1 million endowment from Organic Valley and Clif Bar & Company and a matching $1 million gift from UW alumni John and Tashia Morgridge.

The support gives Tracy more room to get creative, and Dawson is helping to develop potential new markets for his breeds. Despite his focus on sweet corn, Tracy has always suspected there might be interest in corn with more flavor and less sugar. “We know from sweet corn that there are all sorts of flavors and tendencies,” Tracy says. From soups to the traditional meat and potato meal, he thinks savory corn deserves a place.

And building from deep Mexican and South American traditions of elotes and choclo corns, Tracy sees vast potential for new varieties. “Corn is one of the most variable species,” he says. “For every trait that we work with in corn there is an incredible range of variation.”

The chefs went crazy last year when Tracy introduced them to some of the Andean varieties. “Amazing,” says Bonanno of A Pig in a Fur Coat. “I want to make a dish like a risotto or a pasta dish or some type of salad. I don’t want the sweet on sweet on sweet. I just want the corn flavor. I want savory.”

Tracy’s modest sampler inspired chefs Hunter and Miller as well, and they started brainstorming potential growers for 2016. If the experiment takes off, the corn could start infiltrating Wisconsin restaurants this summer.

With so much genetic potential, the chefs help focus the breeding process. “Breeding is a craft,” Tracy says. “The great chefs—and we have some great ones in Madison—are truly artists. They are fine artists at the same level as a fine arts painter or musician. The creativity is just mind-boggling.”

And there is little question that they understand flavor. “They are able to articulate things that we can’t. We might be able to taste the differences, but we can’t say why they are different or why one is better than the other. The chefs are able to do that,” says Dawson. “And that’s useful for the whole food system.”

A food system has so many pieces— chefs, farmers, retailers, processors, consumers—but perhaps the most fundamental unit is the seed. After decades of consolidation in the seed industry and a significant decline in public breeding programs at land grant universities, many sectors of the food movement are turning their attention to seed.

One fortunate consequence of the industry concentration has been to create a market opening for smaller regional and organic seed companies. They, along with a few public breeders, still serve gardeners and market farmers. One goal of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative is to systematically support breeding for traits that are important for local food systems.

These small companies develop their own breeds, but also adopt interesting varieties from public breeding programs. They have the capacity to target regional seed needs, and are usually okay with seed saving. “It’s almost like working with nonprofits because they are really interested in working with the community,” says Dawson.

After Adrienne Shelton MS’12 completed her PhD in 2014—she studied sweet corn breeding under Bill Tracy— she moved to Vitalis Organic Seeds, where she works with growers to find cultivars best suited for the Northeast. As a graduate student in CALS’ Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics program, Shelton was a leader in establishing the Student Organic Seed Symposium, an annual national gathering to offer information and support to young researchers focusing on breeding organic varieties.

“Getting farmers’ feedback is critical,” says Shelton of the opportunity to work with the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative. “The more locations, the better, especially in organic systems where there is more variation.”

The organic movement deserves a lot of credit for the trajectory of new food movements. “Organic growers often have a higher bar for the eating quality of produce because that’s what their customers are demanding,” Shelton says. “Putting a spotlight not just on the farmers but all the way back to the breeding is helping the eater to recognize that all these pieces have to be in place for you to get this delicious tomato that you’re putting on your summer salad.”

These kinds of seed companies will also help make local and regional food systems more resilient to climate change. “It’s fairly easy to breed for gradual climate change if you are selecting in the target environment, because things change over time,” says Dawson. “The most important thing is to have regional testing and regional selection.”

Overall, a more vigorous relationship between breeders and farmers promises a larger potential for varieties going forward, Dawson notes. The ultimate goal is to make plant breeding more of a community effort. When chefs and farmers and consumers participate in the selection process, says Dawson, “The varieties that are developed are going to be more relevant for them.”

Amy Wallner BS’10, a CALS graduate in horticulture and soil sciences, has worked behind both the knife and the tiller. While farming full-time, she spent six months working nights at a Milwaukee farm-to-table restaurant called c. 1880. Now she’s the proprietor of Amy’s Acre—actually, an acre and a half this year—on the margins of a commercial composting operation in Caledonia, Wisc., south of Milwaukee.

She sells to a co-op and a North Side farmers market, but her restaurant clients—c. 1880, Morel and Braise RSA (also part of the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative)—are integral to her business. Before she orders seed for the next growing season, she’ll drop off her catalogs for the chefs to study, returning later for in-depth conversation. “Chefs who want to buy local foods want to have a greater understanding of the whole process,” Wallner says. “I just like to sit down and talk about produce with somebody who uses it just as much as I do.”

Knowing the ingredients they covet, and what kinds of flavors intrigue them, helps Wallner narrow her crop list. Joining the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative took it further. As a student Wallner had worked in the trial gardens at the West Madison Agricultural Research Station, and now she can truly appreciate the farm value of that research. “I wanted to stay connected to UW,” she says.

This will be Wallner’s third season as part of the group’s trials. In her excitement, the first year she grew more than she could handle. Last year she trialed beets, carrots and tomatoes alongside radicchio and endives. “I took on a smaller number of crops because I wanted to be able to collect more extensive observations,” she says.

Wallner hopes getting the breeders involved may lead to strengthening the hardiness of early- and late-season crops. “In the Upper Midwest, that’s when you’re doing the most gambling with your crops. If we can continue to find things that can push those limits out a little bit …”

Eric Elderbrock, of Elderberry Hill Farm near Madison, has similar practical concerns: With the region’s incredibly variable climate, he’s always looking for something that isn’t going to require the most perfect growing conditions and is also resistant to disease and insects: “For it to be a realistic thing for me to be able to grow, it has to meet these demands.”

When he was growing up, Elderbrock didn’t pay much attention to where his food came from. It wasn’t until he spent a college semester in Madagascar that he began to realize the relationship between the food and the land around him. For him, the collaboration is a form of continuing education.

“It’s helpful to me as a farmer to have a sense of what’s possible as far as the breeding side,” says Elderbrock. “I love seeing all of the different colors and flavors and textures. It helps keep farming interesting.”

As picturesque as these relationships are, the business has to work. High-end cuisine doesn’t reflect most daily eating, but these chefs are very committed to helping Wisconsin farmers stay in business and make a good living.

“The chefs always seem to be a couple of years ahead,” Elderbrock notes. This year he is continuing to experiment with artichokes, a crop typically associated with dry Mediterranean climates like Spain and California. Chef Dan Bonanno is encouraging the research in part because of his Italian heritage and culinary training, which included a year in Italy. He would be thrilled to find Wisconsin variations on some traditional Italian ingredients like the artichoke.

And sourcing locally also leads to a robust cuisine. “Italy has 20 regions and each region has its own cuisine because they source locally,” notes Bonanno.

This past February, a few weeks before growers would start their seedlings, the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative gathered to tweak plans for this year’s trials.

At L’Etoile, Chef Tory Miller’s flagship establishment in Madison, beautiful prints of vegetables adorn the wall. But the tables that day were rearranged in a horseshoe. The distinctive conference seating suppresses the normally refined air. Only the curvature of the bar and its adjacent great wall of bourbon suggested a more sensual approach to food.

After introductions and a quick review of last year’s progress, Dawson opens the floor to feedback. The ensuing conversation distills into savory glimpses of market baskets and menu flourishes to come.

They’ve been talking about running a trial for tomato “terroir”—drawing from the wine enthusiasts’ notion that differences in soil can have subtle and profound impacts on flavor. Dawson is a little concerned about logistics, but Miller is persistent: “I think it would be a mistake to not include terroir.”

They discuss what they can do for unsung vegetables like rutabaga and parsnip—produce particularly suited for the Wisconsin climate, but generally unloved. They learn about a new trial focusing on geosmin, which produces the earthy flavor of beets. The chefs wonder aloud if it’s possible to preserve the beautiful purple hues of some heirlooms. Dawson regrets to inform them that changing the physical chemistry involved—the pigments are water soluble, and flush easily from the plants—is a little beyond their powers.

They talk about what makes perfect pepper for kitchen processing. Is seedless possible? Dawson smiles wryly and reminds them of the intrinsic challenge of a seedless pepper.

The conversation gets very detailed over potatoes. Researcher Ruth Genger from the UW’s Organic Potato Project has about 40 heirloom varieties of potato from the Seed Savers Exchange that will be grown out over the next few years. Chef Bonanno asks a technical question about starch content for gnocchi, and then Chef Miller goes off on French fries.

“I’ve been working on trying to break the consumers’ McDonald’s mentality on what a French fry should be,” Miller says. The sheer volume is a perfect example of how hard it can be to assemble the pieces of a sustainable and local food system. “We’re talking about thousands of pounds of French fries,” he says, the other chefs nodding in agreement. “You want to have a local French fry, but at a certain point it’s not sustainable or feasible. Or yummy.” One recent hitch: a harvest of local spuds were afflicted by hollow heart disease.

Genger’s heirloom potato trials have focused on specialty varieties—yellows, reds and blues—but Genger has an alternative: “We have some white potatoes that are pretty good producers organically, but what I tend to hear is that most people don’t like white potatoes.” The chefs don’t seem worried about the difference. “There are some good, white varieties from back in the days when that was what a potato was,” Genger continues, making a note. Knowing that the interest is there, she can make sure farmers and chefs have a chance to evaluate some white heirloom potatoes.

It’s a short conversation, really, but shows the potential value of having everybody at the table. If the breeder has the right plant, the farmers have a good growing experience and the chefs approve, perhaps in another couple of years there could be thousands of pounds of locally sourced organic white French-fried potatoes ferrying salt and mayonnaise and ketchup to the taste buds of Wisconsin diners.

“We try to make the project practical,” says Dawson. “The food system is so complicated. It feels like this is something we can make a difference with. This can help some farmers now, and in 10 years hopefully it will be helping them even more.”

Bill Tracy puts the program in an even bigger context.

“The decisions we make today create the future,” Tracy says. “The choices we make about what crops to work in and what traits to work in literally will create the future of agriculture.”

Farmers, gardeners and chefs are welcome to join the Seed to Kitchen Collaborative. You can learn more about project events at http://go.wisc.edu/seed2kitchen or email Julie Dawson at dawson@hort.wisc.edu.

To Eat It—Or Not

Food engineer Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of biological systems engineering, works with gold. But you won’t find the shiny yellow stuff in his lab; instead, the vials on his bench are mostly purple and red. Gunasekaran works with tiny pieces of gold—nanoparticles—that come in almost every color except gold. And those colors can tell a story.

Gunasekaran’s research focuses on food safety concerns, such as whether a food product was transported and stored properly or whether it has become contaminated. But how can a producer or consumer easily know a product’s history and whether it is
safe to eat? That’s where gold nanoparticles come in handy.

“The color of gold nanoparticles will change depending on the size and shape of the particle,” explains Gunasekaran. “At different temperatures, depending on how long you let the particles grow, they acquire different sizes and shapes. And that changes their colors.”

Gunasekaran’s lab is using those color changes for a difficult task—tracking the time and temperature history of a food product as it is packaged, transported and stored. Up to now similar sensors have given consumers some of this information, but they can miss such critical events as, for example, a short temperature spike that could be enough to kick-start the growth of a dangerous microorganism.

The sensors that Gunasekaran and his team are developing provide a more complete and accurate story. The new sensor can differentiate between food stored at high temperatures first and low temperatures second versus a product stored first at low temperatures and then at high temperatures. And that’s thanks to the properties of the gold nano-particles. The color of the first sample would be different than that of the second because of how and when the particles changed size and shape.

“We’re able to do this because the nanoparticle synthesis is affected by how the particles grow initially versus later,” explains Gunasekaran. “We call this the thermal history indicator, or THI.”

These gold nanoparticle sensors are being patented through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), and students in Gunasekaran’s lab won a UW–Madison Discovery to Product award. The student team also won a People’s Choice
award in the 2014 Agricultural Innovation Prize competition.

They are now working to further develop and optimize the system. Since different food products travel through different channels, some sensors will be best used to track long-distance travel over the course of a month, while others will track history for only a matter of hours. Some sensors will work best in frozen storage and others will be optimized for various room temperatures.

The goal of optimization is a simple-to-use biosensor customized for any given food product. Gunasekaran envisions the sensors—now being developed as self-adhesive dots or stickers—being used anywhere along the food production channel. Producers, packagers, transporters and even consumers could easily use the biosensors to understand the thermal history of their product, saving time and money and avoiding recalls and health issues.

“There are a number of ways to use this technology, and making a food product’s history easy to see is the key,” says Gunasekaran. “Food is being wasted because people are throwing it out according to an expiration date, or people are getting sick because they eat food that’s gone bad. Those things can be avoided by having a better product safety indicator.”

Partners in Food Safety

When the managers of University Housing Dining and Culinary Services (DCS) decided a few years ago to go above and beyond state requirements in employee food safety certification, they turned to
the CALS Department of Food Science for help.

The “ServSafe” certification program, produced by the National Restaurant Association, is offered nationwide. By Wisconsin state law, food service operations need at least one staff member to be certified.

But DCS has expanded that requirement as a matter of quality improvement. “We wanted to provide the people on our front lines more tools to help us assure food safety at all our service points,” says DCS associate director Julie Luke. “Over the last three to five years we’ve probably doubled the number of staff who have food safety training built into the credentials for their position.” Even for positions where certification is not required it is offered as a professional development option, notes Luke.

DCS has some 100 full-time classified staff preparing and serving an average of 95,000 food orders a week through residence halls, catering and other venues on campus, assisted by an army of 1,200 student workers.

Expanding training was and is a tall order—but DCS has an able partner in food science instructor and registered dietitian Monica Theis, who not only teaches the two-day certification class but also recruits her undergraduate dietetics students to serve as tutors. A number of food service employees have low literacy or English as a second language. For those groups both the instruction and certification exam can pose a challenge.

Dietetics junior Heang Lee Tan worked one-on-one with one such employee, helping her take notes, prepare notecards and take a practice exam.

“It was really eye-opening for me to see how hard it was to implement a food safety training program. I saw how literacy became such a challenge,” says Tan. “It makes me more sensitive to the great diversity of staff working in an organization. Having that knowledge will make me a better employee or manager in the future.”

Student tutors like Tan have boosted the success rate of DCS employees in passing the exam, notes Theis. “It’s been an amazing experience.”

Theis has involved undergrads in other food safety efforts. For example, Lori Homes BS’13 partnered with DCS and University Health Services to design an online food safety training module now used by DCS student workers, who formerly had to get that training in person. Homes also served as a student supervisor at DCS.

The food safety collaboration is one of many between DCS and food science. Theis trains DCS staff on a number of food-related topics, including allergies. DCS administration offers work opportunities to dietetics students interested in one day joining large-scale food and dining operations. Recently DCS executive chef Jeff Orr worked with food science students on a contest to create a new hamburger recipe for Gilly’s Frozen Custard restaurants.

Theis welcomes those collaborations. “We have opportunities right here to partner with campus units and contribute to our little community,” she says. “Our students can make a tremendous difference.”

Upping the Orange

Sherry Tanumihardjo is a CALS professor of nutritional sciences and director of the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a popular new program that draws participants from majors all across campus. She has almost three decades of experience working with vitamin A, and her research team has conducted studies in the United States, Indonesia, South Africa, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Zambia. Tanumihardjo has acted as a consultant to many studies throughout the world to assist with study design and appropriate standardization. She is a strong advocate for the promotion of nutritionally enhanced staple foods, vegetables and fruits to enhance overall health and well-being.

Describe your work with orange vegetables.
I have worked for a number of years on carrots of many colors as well as on orange-flesh sweet potato and, more recently, orange maize. Basically we are trying to improve the vitamin A status of individuals by having them consume more orange fruits and vegetables in general.

Can you give us an idea of how you go about doing that?
For many years I have worked with carrot breeder Phil Simon in the Department of Horticulture. He was breeding carrots for more orange color. We did a series of studies in both an animal model and in humans, trying to look at the uptake and distribution of the carotenoids that give the vegetables their orange color—and the vitamin A that is made from the carotenoids. Then we moved on to orange vegetables in humans in Africa. I have worked with orange-flesh sweet potato in South Africa and with orange maize in Zambia.

Can you describe the connection between the color and the nutritional value?
There are three well-known precursors of vitamin A that are called pro-vitamin A carotenoids. Those are beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. Many of you may have heard of beta-carotene because it is one of the compounds found in many over-the-counter supplements. But those are also the compounds that give carrots and orange maize their bright orange color.

What happens if there is not enough vitamin A in the diet?
The most drastic thing that can happen is death. So we go around trying to get people to improve their vitamin A intake not only to prevent death—there are many steps before that happens, and one of them is blindness. Vitamin A is extremely important in vision and it also helps us ward off disease, so it’s a very important vitamin.

How did you get started in Africa?
It actually started very slowly. I used to be a consultant and I would fly back and forth to different countries to help them look at study design. The sweet potato study was funded by the International Potato Center. I helped them design the study, they did the school implementation—a feeding study—and then I helped them get the work published. My work with orange maize started in 2004 in collaboration with HarvestPlus, a project managed by the International Food Policy Research Institute. We started working with animal models and then progressed to full-fledged feeding trials, the latest of which we finished in 2012.

What were some of the challenges in your work in Africa?
The challenge is that feeding trials, if they’re going to show what we call efficacy, have to be highly controlled. So that means you have to keep the children for long periods of time and feed them all of the foods—and the foods need to be the same across the group except your test food. So in South Africa we fed orange-flesh sweet potato to half the children and white-flesh sweet potato to the other half. And then when we moved on to orange maize we did two studies. One study was similar to the sweet potato study where we fed white maize and orange maize. And then we did a second study where we had three groups, which got a little more complicated. We had white maize, orange maize and then white maize with a vitamin A supplement.

Another challenge is that all of the human work that I do involves blood—so we have to take blood from these children. Vitamin A in the human body is stored in the liver, and we use indirect markers of liver reserves of vitamin A that you can pick up from the blood.

Looking down the road what kind of goals do you have for your research?
We would like for people to have optimal health by having a diet that has not only all the nutrients you need but also some of the potential compounds that gear us toward optimal health. So it’s not just about fighting blindness anymore, but to see if we can get people into a new nutritional state where they are actually able to ward off diseases such as cancer.

What kind of progress have you made?
We have had significant progress with sweet potato. Most people in Africa used to eat white sweet potato, not the orange sweet potato we eat here in the United States. Many countries in Africa have now adapted the vines to be orange-flesh sweet potatoes. We think that’s a success story. Regarding orange maize, there are three lines of orange maize that have been released by the Zambian government. Currently orange maize is available to consumers. Right now it’s at a premium price, but hopefully with time the price will come down to the level of white maize.

How did you get interested in this line of work?
It chose me. It wasn’t something that I was looking for, but I was working with vitamin A and if you’re working with vitamin A and status assessment, it’s going to draw you to the countries that may have a history of vitamin A deficiency.

Can you talk a little more about the international nutritional programming you’ve been involved in?
Most of the work that I’ve done is to support biochemical labs. We have not done a lot of nutrition education on the ground, although that is a goal of mine, especially in Zambia. We have discovered that Zambians actually have really good sources of vitamin A in their daily diets, so we want to help them continue to eat the fruits and vegetables that are good sources of those phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals.

The other thing that I work on is isotope methods, which sounds a little scary!

What are isotope methods and what do they do?
We work with a compound called 13C. Typical carbon in the human body is 12C and radioactive carbon is 14C. We are working with the form of carbon that constitutes 1 percent of the human body. It’s perfectly safe to use, but it also has allowed me to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That’s the same agency that oversees radioactive bombs in different countries, so it’s kind of interesting that they have something called Atoms for Peace. And they actually received the Nobel Peace Prize one year based on the safe use of isotopes in nutrition.

I have worked in several countries trying to help them understand isotope methods and to apply isotope methods at the population level to inform public health policy. It’s a very technical method, but it can answer questions of public health significance.

So it’s a research tool. And what kinds of questions does it answer?
It is the most sensitive marker of liver reserves of vitamin A. Basically what we do is we give a dose of vitamin A that has a slightly higher amount of 13C than what’s found naturally in the environment, and then we can follow the uptake and the clearance of that 13C in the human body. And from that we can calculate total body stores of vitamin A—how much is in the whole body.

To conclude here, there’s an interesting story about your office and a more recent career development of yours—serving as director of the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a program you helped develop and launch in 2011.
Yes. The Nutritional Sciences Building was originally a children’s hospital, and this particular office that I sit in sat idle for many, many years, used only for small committee meetings and things like that. When we received funding for the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, I looked in this office again and realized that it now fits my purpose. Originally it was the viewing room for children who had died from a variety of diseases, and the parents would sit in this room and mourn their lost child. I decided that this room fit my new mantra at the university, which is to empower undergrads, to mobilize them, to try to change the world. And while I’m sure we won’t have 100 percent participation, we’ve already had about 1,000 students go through the program.

Give: Supporting Food Safety

When Kikkoman wanted to establish a naturally brewed soy sauce plant in Walworth, Wisconsin—an operation that was to become the world’s largest—the company had a top-notch consultant at CALS to help them out.

That expert was professor Edwin “Mike” Foster, a noted bacteriologist who was the first director of the Food Research Institute (FRI) and the person responsible for FRI moving to UW–Madison from the University of Chicago in 1966.

“Mike was invaluable in offering guidance on how to address and validate regulatory issues related to the safety of soy sauce as Kikkoman went through the process of gaining FDA approval,” says FRI director Charles Czuprynski. Over the years UW–Madison has continued to play a role in testing potential new uses of sauce and products derived in the fermentation process, he notes.

Out of long-standing gratitude, the Kikkoman Foods Foundation has named a new scholarship fund in Foster’s honor. The “Kikkoman Scholarship in Honor of Dr. Edwin (Mike) Foster,” as it is called, will be awarded by the FRI each year “to a deserving undergraduate student with a demonstrated interest in food microbiology and food safety,” says Czuprynski. The award amount will be in the range of $1,000 to $1,200.

Czuprynski regards the Kikkoman plant as a remarkable Wisconsin success story—and a tribute to Kikkoman’s long-range leadership vision, supportive relationship with their workers and cooperation with local businesses and communities. “This scholarship is just one example of their generous support of UW–Madison and the UW System,” Czuprynski says.

The UW Foundation maintains more than 6,000 gift funds that provide critical resources for the educational and research activities of CALS.

Contributions to the Kikkoman Scholarship in Honor of Dr. Edwin (Mike) Foster fund are welcome at http://go.wisc.edu/08c3m5.

If you wish to establish your own scholarship fund, contact Sara Anderson at the University of Wisconsin Foundation, sara.anderson@supportuw.org, (608) 263-9537.

To make a more general contribution to scholarships at CALS, visit the Agricultural and Life Sciences Scholarship Fund at http://go.wisc.edu/3q63sr.

Meat, With a Touch of Fruit

When Jeff Sindelar talks about the ingredients he’s working with, you’d think he was making juice. Not quite. He’s adding things like cranberry concentrate, cherry powder, lemon extract and celery powder to meat.

But Sindelar, a CALS professor of animal sciences and a UW–Extension meat specialist, is not adding them for flavor. He’s looking at ways to ensure that meat products labeled “organic” and “natural” are safe to eat.

Sales of organic and natural foods are booming, with double-digit percentage gains almost every year. As more and more food processors scramble to meet that demand, they’re encountering a special challenge. Because they must process these meats according to organic and natural label requirements, they are unable to use the vast majority of antimicrobial agents employed in standard meat processing.

“Most ingredients and technologies that serve as antimicrobials—ingredients that can improve safety by either suppressing, inhibiting or destroying any pathogenic bacteria—are not able to be used in products labeled ‘natural’ and ‘organic,’” Sindelar says.

The trick is to find alternative materials and processes that deliver safety—and also offer the look and flavor that consumers value.

Sindelar has identified some options. “A number of different natural-based organic acids offer a significant improvement to food safety,” says Sindelar, who is working in partnership with Kathy Glass, associate director of the CALS-based Food Research Institute. “We have tested a number of different ingredients such as cranberry concentrate, grape seed oil and tea tree extract.”

Some compounds from natural sources work as well as such standard preservatives as sodium nitrite, sodium lactate or sodium diacetate, to name a few. But it can take heavy doses of some natural ingredients to provide equivalent results—causing some undesirable side effects.

“Cranberry concentrate is a very effective natural antimicrobial,” says Sindelar. “But if you use the amount needed to significantly control the growth of bacteria, the meat turns cranberry red.”

Part of the researchers’ work involves “challenge testing”—adding pathogenic microbes to the meat to make sure that a given ingredient prevents the growth of bacteria throughout processing and storage. If substantial numbers of microbes grow, that ingredient is ruled out as being an effective natural antimicrobial.

Successful tests have already led to new products. Cherry powder combined with celery powder, for example, “is already being adopted by processors because of how effective these ingredients are in improving meat safety and quality,” notes Sindelar. And the search for other natural additives continues.

Both researchers are certain they’ll find success—particularly as they continue working in partnership with producers in the field.

“Collaborative research between the university and industry is essential to understand the synergistic effects of these ingredients—and to ensure the safety and quality of natural and organic meats,” says Glass.

Catch up with … Michelle Moyer

SHE’S NEVER SET FOOT IN AFGHANISTAN , but Michelle Moyer is helping farmers there nevertheless. Moyer, who earned her Ph.D. in plant pathology at Cornell University, is now an assistant professor of horticulture at Washington State University, where she also serves as an Extension specialist for viticulture. This put her in a prime position to help U.S. troops being sent to Afghanistan to better understand the significance and cultivation of the country’s No. 1 fruit crop: the grape.

Moyer developed a presentation for the national Grape Community of Practice (GCoP), an Extension network of 87 grape production professionals from 31 states and Ontario, Canada. The GCoP is distributing Moyer’s presentation to its members at universities and government agencies who are involved in training U.S. troops.

With this work Moyer joins a number of experts in the CALS community who are helping the U.S. military improve agriculture in Afghanistan. For example, CALS serves as a training and “reachback” resource for Wisconsin National Guard agribusiness development troops serving in Afghanistan.

Why is it important for U.S. troops to know about Afghanistan’s grape cultivation?
Grapes, the leading horticulture crop in Afghanistan, are used predominately for fresh eating and raisin production. Many troops arrive in country during the growing season, so being aware of what they’re seeing will help minimize damage. That’s critical in establishing rapport with local communities. There are many U.S.-based economic development teams working in Afghanistan to help promote agricultural production, so clearly everyone wants to be on the same page. If other U.S. and international aid agencies are promoting the growth and development of the viticulture industry, it is imperative that military efforts do not hinder it.

How does grape cultivation in Afghanistan and in the United States differ?
The biggest differences are the extent and level of infrastructure. Afghan vineyards often are not arranged in rows. In many cases, vines are trellised on any available structure or grow in a bush form. Irrigation systems are still predominately in the form of ditches, and we highlight the need to be careful when operating machinery through them as it could negatively impact farmland downstream.

Vineyards growing raisin grapes often have large structures called “kishmish khanas” located in their center. These are drying houses for raisins. Grapes are dried in a similar fashion as tobacco is in Wisconsin: they’re hung on various levels inside a dark building with sufficient air circulation. As they dry, the raisins drop to the ground, where they are collected. Unfortunately, khanas also are likely spots for insurgent activity, so we highlight being careful when scouting—for many reasons!—as you could damage produce worth thousands of dollars.

What did you learn from the experience of preparing a group for this particular need?
It really highlighted the global and cultural significance of grape production. In the United States, we tend to focus on wine grape production when we think of grapes. But grapes have so many more uses that are equally vital and are an integral part of a culture’s heritage. It was fascinating to learn about this type, style and level of grape production, particularly relating to raisin production in Afghanistan. I am impressed that the U.S. military reaches out to Extension for this education. It highlights that the U.S.’s intention in these types of operations is to help, even if that message gets lost in the political and emotional strains of conflict.

A New Way to Bucky

Tired of ice cream? Not a chance. But if you’re looking for a cold, milk-based coffee drink, consider Babcock Hall’s latest creation. Buckyccino, available at the Babcock Hall Dairy Store and other campus outlets, comes in coffee and mocha—and in taste tests, UW students, faculty and staff preferred it 9 to 1 over Starbucks’ Frappuccino.

Is All Really Fair with Fair-Trade Coffee?

When you buy a cup of coffee that has been certified as Fair Trade, Organic or another “socially responsible” label, do you know what you are really getting?

“I think most consumers would be surprised to learn who really benefits from certification,” says Jeremy Weber MA’08, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and applied economics.

Weber has spent much of the past five years studying the impact of certification on coffee growers in Peru and Mexico, and he says the small, family-operated farms often portrayed in fair-trade promotions are among the least likely to benefit directly from consumers’ purchases. Often the price premiums growers receive for certified beans are too small to cover the costs of becoming certified. The fees and coordination involved with gaining various certifications favor growers who are organized and aware enough to take advantage, Weber says.

Weber became interested in the coffee trade after spending a year in Peru on a Fulbright fellowship. During that time, he followed a growers’ cooperative as it became certified as Fair Trade, a standard that signifies adherence to sustainable development and fair-labor practices. For his doctoral research, he examined the experience of growers in three such standards—Fair Trade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance. He found that growers do often benefit—but not for the reasons consumers might assume.

“They received more money for their coffee, but the key was increased productivity from their plants,” he explains.

Growers working toward Rainforest Alliance certification, for example, received technical assistance from a nongovernmental organization, something that local governments rarely provide. Weber says farmers who implemented pruning techniques recommended by the NGO doubled yields in four years, although he says sustaining those yields will depend on how well they replenish soils.

Coffee drinkers also might not expect that certification can benefit public-works projects. NGOs working with certification agencies have helped bring running water and latrines into growers’ communities. One Peruvian farmer told Weber proudly: “Our town used to be seen as a backward place, where people were thought of as lazy and incompetent. Now, even though we are just small farmers, we are seen as just as good as other coffee growers from the outside. Farmers from other places are coming to see my crop and how I manage it.”

Still, Weber feels fair-trade and organic certification has a long way to go before it can live up the claims it makes. “Certification too often can become a once-a-year visit to fill out a checklist, not a holistic view focused on outcomes that consumers are expecting,” he says. More evaluations by third-party organizations and academic researchers are needed to fully understand whether certifications are delivering on their lofty promises.

Five Things Everyone Should Know About…Raw Milk

1.     Wisconsin is not alone in its interest in raw milk. In May Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmers to sell unpasteurized milk to consumers on a limited basis. But this is likely not the last we will hear about raw milk. Nationally consumer interest in raw milk is peaking, and 28 states now allow raw milk to be sold either directly to consumers or through retail outlets. Raw milk is also used in some forms of cheese, such as Parmesan or Cheddar, that are aged over long periods of time.

2.     The risks associated with drinking raw milk are real. The federal government and public health agencies oppose consumption of raw milk because it can harbor pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter and toxic strains of E. coli, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal illnesses. More than 100 years of scientific study bear these risks out. Moreover, no farming practice can completely eliminate the presence of these pathogens. Only pasteurization, the process of heating milk to rid it of dangerous microbes, has proved effective.

3.     The risks are also relatively small. Multiple surveys have shown that between 1 and 10 percent of raw milk samples are likely to contain pathogenic bacteria. It’s estimated that at least half of Wisconsin’s 13,000 dairy farm families consume raw milk, and we have not seen catastrophic consequences from this consumption. Farmers argue there is a bigger risk of getting hurt driving to a farm than there is from drinking raw milk, and that may well be true. But the reality of that risk remains.

4.     Paradoxically, some people drink it for health reasons. Michael Bell, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology, has done survey research to investigate why consumers drink raw milk despite its health risks. Many of the consumers in his study reported that raw milk helps them deal with personal or family health issues, including psoriasis, allergies, intestinal diseases, digestive problems and nervous system diseases. The root causes of these health problems are uncertain, and this is partly why sufferers seek alternative treatments. Although almost no reputable research has been done to test these potential health benefits, clearly many consumers have deeply held beliefs that drinking raw milk is worth the risk.

5.     Food is usually presumed guilty until proven innocent. In this country, most regulatory systems put the burden on food manufacturers to prove their products are safe. There are clearly public safety reasons for that bias, but business interests also play a significant role. Food suppliers and their insurance companies don’t want to risk being liable in incidents of food contamination, and so they have a powerful incentive to err on the side of safety. The national chain Whole Foods, for example, has decided not to sell raw milk because of the high cost of potential liability.

Scott Rankin is an associate professor and current chair of the CALS Department of Food Science.An expert on the characterization of dairy food flavors, he studies the chemical reactions and compounds that create the unique flavors of cheese and other dairy products. He works closely with dairy processors throughout Wisconsin to solve flavor problems and improve techniques for making dairy products.

Making Links

So you’ve got an RV full of Packers fans on their way to your place for a tailgater. You need meat, and fast. Where do you turn?

Here’s an option that may surprise you: UW-Madison’s Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory. Opened in 1931, the lab operates much like a small-scale meat-processing plant, where white-coated staff and students harvest animals, process meat and prepare steaks, chops and sausages. Though primarily geared for research and training students, the lab began selling its products to the public last year, opening a small store in a converted spice room. Now students produce and sell everything from top sirloin to Polish sausages, all while closing the loop on their educational experience.

“Students are extremely responsible and intelligent,” says Kurt Vogel BS’06, who manages the lab’s 10 student employees. “It takes a lot to get into this school, and my feeling is that we should let them use their skills.”

A case in point arose this fall, when students Jordan Matthews and Clayton Wohlk approached Vogel about changing the lab’s recipe for sausage sticks. “We didn’t like the flavor of the stuff we were making,” says Wohlk, a junior dairy-science major, “so we changed some things around and added peppers.” Vogel liked the result so much that he had the students prepare a batch to sell in the store. They even designed a product label.

“The biggest thing is that now they can take something home to their family and say, “Look what I did,’” says Vogel. And rarely has homework tasted so good.

The Case for Queso

Everyone knows about Wisconsin cheese—but that doesn’t mean that everyone likes it. For many Latino consumers, for instance, our cheese just doesn’t cut it.

“It’s not viewed as authentic,” says Scott Rankin, an associate professor of food science. “When a (Latino) consumer sees a package of blended Colby, Jack and Cheddar labeled ‘Mexican-style’ cheese, it’s almost insulting.”

With the growth of the Latino population in the United States, Latin American-style cheeses have become one of the U.S. dairy industry’s fastest-growing markets. Production of these cheeses jumped about 36 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. But Latino consumers are also “very attuned to a cheese’s performance, such as melting qualities,” says Rankin. “The shape, color and package all have to work.”

For the past two years, Rankin has studied Latin American cheeses to learn why American-made ones don’t measure up. With graduate student Luis Jimenez-Maroto and postdoctoral researcher Arnoldo Lopez-Hernandez, he has analyzed the chemical, microbiological and physical components of three popular types of cheese sold in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

The team found that some American-made cheeses compare favorably to the taste of authentic Latin American cheeses, which have a simple flavor meant to complement other foods. But there were other differences between these cheeses that may factor as heavily as taste.
One of the biggest surprises was the importance of packaging and marketing. Cheeses from Mexico are usually round and prominently display the red, white and green colors of the Mexican flag on their labels. In Mexico, these cheeses are often sliced from larger blocks directly in the store. “The experience of buying cheese is important,” says Rankin, noting that consumers typically have close relationships with merchants and show strong loyalty to local varieties.

Partly because American-made cheeses don’t offer the same experience, there’s now a growing black market for authentic Latin American cheeses, which raises concerns about food safety. And that may be all the more reason for Wisconsin cheesemakers to take a closer look at the Latino market.

“There is no great technological hurdle to making this change,” Rankin says. “The cultural change on the part of American producers is the hardest thing right now.”