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.

Move Over, Beer

Wisconsin is known for fermented products like cheese, pickles and beer. But now it’s adding even more to that blossoming list: wine and cider. And the Badger State’s 110 wineries and commercial cider makers now have a new resource to help them compete: Nick Smith.

Since he started at CALS earlier this year as the university’s first wine and cider outreach specialist, Smith has been traveling the state, knocking on doors and meeting Wisconsin’s wine and cider makers.

Wine grapes can be difficult to grow in Wisconsin since most varieties prefer warmer climates, but after years researching wine and working with growers in Minnesota, Smith is confident there’s a market for it here, too, given the state’s legacy of fermented products, bustling tourism industry and agricultural diversity.

Smith’s also interested in helping producers realize profits in cider, where it can be hard to compete with large cider makers who sell product for the price of craft beer.

“It’s a relatively rapidly growing industry, especially for cider, which is one of the fastest-growing market segments in terms of percentage growth year after year,” he says.

Smith has blazed a meandering trail to his current position. He was a 19-year-old business management major at the University of Minnesota the day he caught the wine and beer bug. He was making a delivery for one of his campus jobs when he noticed a certain shop across the street.

“There was a homebrew shop right there on campus—I think it was owned by a retired microbiology professor,” he says. “I thought: ‘What is that?’ and instantly, I was hit. It never occurred to me that you could homebrew.”

Smith ended up taking numerous food and fermentation science classes. He then spent a year studying beer and winemaking at Oregon State University before taking a job as a chemist for a commercial winemaker in California.

But the draw back to the Midwest was strong, and he took a position as a research winemaker at the University of Minnesota, where he spent eight years preparing small batches of wine for tasting analysis based on the selections of grape breeders. He also earned a master’s degree in food science.

Just prior to joining CALS, Smith was working as a winemaker in Rochester, Minnesota, but the opportunity to build something from the vineyard (and orchard) up in Wisconsin was too good to turn down.

Since his arrival, Smith has participated in workshops hosted by the wine industry and is gathering input and information about the needs of wine and cider makers in Wisconsin. Many, he says, are new to commercial production and are looking for advice and help in scaling up from homebrew or commercial small-batch operations. Smith, who is funded by state and industry grants, is working with the Wisconsin Winery Association to develop educational outreach tracks for conferences, find speakers and develop short courses for industry, much like the CALS-based Center for Dairy Research, which he says serves as a good model for developing outreach and viticulture partnerships.

As examples, over the summer he hosted an industry workshop on sparkling wine production, which he expects to be a profitable segment of the market in Wisconsin, as well as a preharvest workshop on aspects of fermentation chemistry in winemaking. This fall he’s hosting regional winemaker roundtables at three wineries around the state, offering winemakers an opportunity to meet and discuss wines they are producing.

Smith’s also working to get a fermentation lab bubbling in Babcock Hall, where he currently shares space with ice cream and other frozen-dessert researchers. He may also take students interested in making wine and cider for an independent study course, similar to a beer-brewing course recently led by Jim Steele, head of the fermented foods and beverages program in the Department of Food Science. The department plans to soon offer an undergraduate certificate in fermented foods and beverages.

Smith hopes the revenue generated from workshops will fund additional research on how grape growing affects flavor and aroma development. Wisconsin is, after all, fertile terroir: roughly 10 new wineries, 10 new breweries and 10 new distilleries pop up in the state each year.

“It’s a growing industry, and it’s going to grow without us,” he says. “But the UW can help it grow better.”

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.”

Creating a Healthier World

YOU CAN’T SPOT THEM RIGHT AWAY—they’re hidden in plain sight, often disguised as majors in the life sciences—but there are thousands of undergraduates on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus who, in terms of their future careers, consider themselves “pre-health.”

What are their reasons? For some students, the motivation is acutely personal. As a child, Kevin Cleary BS’13 (biology) felt an urgent need to help as he watched his father deal with recurrent brain tumors. “By age 11, I knew I had a future in health care,” says Cleary. Many others aren’t yet sure what role they will play, but they are eager for guidance on how to use their majors to address an array of global problems including hunger, disease, poverty and environmental degradation. Says senior biochemistry major Yuli Chen, “I want to make an impact on people, and I believe that every person has the right to be provided basic necessities such as clean water, education and food.”

For much of the past century, young people seeking to address health-related suffering may have felt relatively limited in their options. Most considered medical school (still the gold standard to many), nursing school or other familiar allied health occupations that are largely oriented toward addressing disease after it occurs.

In recent years, however, health experts worldwide have placed an increasing emphasis on the importance of prevention in achieving health for the largest possible number of people. This was illustrated at UW–Madison in 2005, when the University of Wisconsin Medical School changed its name to the School of Medicine and Public Health, offering the following reason: “Public health focuses on health promotion and disease prevention at the level of populations, while medicine focuses on individual care, with an emphasis on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Ideally these approaches should be seamlessly integrated in practice, education and research.”

The founding in 2011 of the interdisciplinary Global Health Institute (GHI), a partnership of schools, colleges and other units across campus, broadened the university’s approach to health still further:

“We view the health of individuals and populations through a holistic context of healthy places upon which public health depends—from neighborhoods and national policies to the state of the global environment. This approach requires collaboration from across the entire campus to address health care, food security and sustainable agriculture, water and sanitation, environmental sustainability, and ‘one health’ perspectives that integrate the health of humans, animals and the environment.”

Demand by UW students for educational options built around this broad concept of health had been growing for some time. Before the creation of the GHI, an Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health was introduced to offer students an understanding of public health in a global context. The certificate explores global health issues and possible solutions—and shows students how their own majors and intended professions might make those solutions reality. Although administered from CALS and directed by CALS nutritional sciences professor Sherry Tanumihardjo, the certificate accepts students from across campus and highlights ways in which teachers, engineers, farmers, social workers, journalists, nutritionists, policy makers, and most other professions can play a role in global health. Funding is provided through the Madison Initiative for Undergraduates, grants and private donations.

Earning the certificate requires completion of core courses focusing heavily on agriculture and nutrition, the importance of prevention and population-level approaches in public health, and the role of the environment in health. Students also complete relevant electives (examples: women’s health and human rights, environmental health, international development), and—most transformative for students—a field course, usually a one- to three-week trip either abroad or to a location in the United States where a particular global health issue is being addressed by one or more local partner organizations in ways specific to the place and the people who live there.

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.

The Power of Pizza

The busloads of schoolkids who visit Jauquet Dairy each year have lots to talk about when they get home—from the really cute newborn calves to the really big cows and the really cool machines that milk them.

Dave Jauquet gets a kick out of all that, but he wants them to remember something else as well: The link between his farm and what they eat. And he has a good way of getting that across.

“I tell them that the milk from these cows ends up on pizza. I like to tell them that because they can connect it all the way from standing here, seeing a lot of cows eating food, to something they actually have for supper,” Jauquet says. “Because pretty much every kid eats pizza.”

And so do their parents, friends and neighbors. In the myriad menu items that make up American cuisine, pizza is as close as you get to a universal food. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. consumers had some at least once last year, and 41 percent of us eat it once a week.

That matters in a very big way to people like Jauquet and his partners—his wife Stacy and brother Jeff. Virtually every pound of milk produced on their Kewaunee County farm is made into six-pound loaves of mozzarella and sleek “salamis” of provolone. Like the people who buy that cheese—mostly independent Italian eateries—the Jauquets, their dozen employees and 600-plus Holsteins are in the pizza business.

That’s the case for somewhere around a quarter of Wisconsin’s 1.25 million dairy cows—the working girls in an industry that generates 150,000 jobs, half of the state’s farm revenue and $26.5 billion in economic activity. At least 85 percent of the state’s milk goes into cheese, a third of which is mozzarella, the vast majority of which ends up on pizza.

“As pizza goes, so goes the dairy industry,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Forty years ago, cheddar was the state’s big cheese. Mozzarella was a specialty cheese, made by firms that specialized in Italian varieties sold primarily to Italian American customers. Since 1970, Wisconsin’s mozzarella production has increased tenfold—it surpassed cheddar in 2000. So has U.S. per capita consumption. “That’s all pizza,” Umhoefer says.

In a nation with 70,000 pizzerias and pizzas sold in every bowling alley and convenience store, it’s hard to imagine a time when pizza wasn’t part of the broad cultural landscape. But it wasn’t until after World War II that pizza went mainstream. Cultural historians attribute the shift to American G.I.s who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy. It also meshed with trends of the time: Informal dining, ethnic foods, eating by the TV, and lots of cars to facilitate takeout, delivery and road food.

If you want to get a feel for how pizza transformed Wisconsin’s cheese business, a good person to talk to is Roger Krohn, master cheesemaker at the Agropur facility in Luxemburg. Krohn is in charge of turning milk from Jauquet Dairy and 150 other area farms into pizza cheese. His family began making cheese at this site in 1892, and when they sold the business 108 years later, Roger Krohn stayed on to oversee cheese production. It was in his DNA. He grew up next door to the cheese plant and began making cheese there at age 14.

For the first 68 years, like most Wisconsin cheese firms, the Krohns made cheddar. In 1960, that changed. “I think my dad was looking to branch out into something a little less competitive—a new niche market,” Krohn says. “An Italian gentleman encouraged him to get into mozzarella, because he foresaw the pizza industry really taking off.”

It was a leap of faith—“Pizza was not a real big deal in 1960, at least not in the Midwest,” Krohn says—but a smart one. The mozzarella making began modestly—two guys kneading and stretching the curd by hand—but never stopped expanding. By next year, when a major expansion is done, the plant will be using 2.4 million pounds of milk from 28,000 cows to produce about a quarter of a million pounds of pizza cheese—every day.

As pizza picked up, more Wisconsin cheddar plants followed suit, says Dean Sommer of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), a CALS-based dairy foods research and education program.

“They read the tea leaves,” says Sommer, who in 1986 took a job at Alto Dairy (now Saputo foods) in Waupun—then the nation’s largest cheese plant—to help the firm expand into mozzarella. “Consumption of pizza was on a double-digit increase every year, and the margins of making mozzarella were higher than for cheddar cheese. They could see that with the growth of pizza and the growth of mozzarella, and the profitability, this was a better place to be.”

Class Act: The Big Picture on Food

She’s picked vegetables on West Coast farms, worked to improve health, education and housing in immigrant communities on the Texas-Mexico border and, most recently, spent a semester in Peru, where she attended Pontificia University and worked with a non-governmental organization on food security.

As a double major in agricultural economics and Latin American studies—with an academic record that led to a recent Outstanding Sophomore Award from the Wisconsin Agricultural and Life Sciences Alumni Association—Patricia Paskov is trying to get the big picture on food.

It all started with a little story. “My grandfather, an immigrant from a tiny island in Croatia, claims to have survived the earliest years of his childhood on the milk of one goat,” says Paskov. “I, on the other hand, grew up in suburbia and probably spent most of my childhood believing that food grew on grocery store shelves.”

As a young adult, Paskov resolved to learn more about where food comes from. A “three-week, no-frills farm experience” in California, as she describes it, gave a new focus to her life. “I began to understand that food is an undeniable social, economic and political force,” Paskov says.

Her interest in food policy grew during an internship with the Oakland-based nonprofit Food First, which conducts global work on food systems and is located near a part of the city that at the time had 30,000 residents but no grocery stores. “It’s almost as if this reality has prompted the community to take some of the most progressive steps forward in food justice,” Paskov says. “Community development programs, NGOs, and farm-to-plate programs abound in Oakland, igniting a role of agency amongst everyone.”

Paskov sees her life’s calling as helping to make the world a better place food-wise. “I see myself working in the public or third sector, contributing to international decisions regarding food, agriculture, national resources and rural development,” she says. “In the upcoming years, population growth and climate change will largely affect how the agricultural market functions—and food policy will be a more important field than ever.”

Field Notes: Potato Exchange Benefits Peruvians

In the growing region around Puno, Peru, farmers hedge their bets.

Located 12,000 feet above sea level, on the side of an Andean mountain, Puno has a growing season that’s short, cool and prone to frost. The staple food of the area is potato, and local farmers plant dozens of different varieties on their plots—some that they relish for their flavor, as well as some less palatable, frost-tolerant types.

In good years everything grows well and families have plenty to eat. In bad years—when there is an unseasonable or particularly hard frost—their preferred plants fail, and they must rely on the small, bitter potatoes produced by the hardy survivors.

Soon, however, they will have a better option. For the past two growing seasons, farmers near Puno and in three Peruvian highland villages have participated in a project to grow and test frost-tolerant versions of their favorite local varieties, with great success.

These special potato plants were developed in Wisconsin by a team of CALS plant scientists and plant breeders using germplasm stored in the U.S. Potato Genebank, located in Sturgeon Bay.

“I think this is the first case where a potato developed in the U.S. has been accepted by local farmers in these communities in the Andes,” says project coordinator Alfonso del Rio, an associate scientist in the lab of John Bamberg. As an employee of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, Bamberg serves as director of the U.S. Potato Genebank. He is also a professor of horticulture with CALS.

The plant materials used for the project, like the vast majority found in the U.S. Potato Genebank, were brought to the United States from the Andes, the potato’s site of origin. This makes the project a special opportunity for potato breeders in the United States to give something back.

“We’re interested in returning the benefits of our genebank to Peru and the broader Andean region because that’s the area that supplied our country with germplasm,” says Bamberg, who led the project’s breeding effort. Earlier work by CALS horticulture professor Jiwan Palta, the third member of the team, made modern marker-assisted breeding for frost tolerance possible.

To make the new potato lines, Bamberg took an exceptionally frost-tolerant wild relative of the potato family—a weed, basically—and crossed it with seven popular native Peruvian potato varieties to generate frost-tolerant versions of the native potato plants.

Although the new potato lines were originally meant to be added to Peru’s national potato breeding program as germplasm for further breeding, the farmers who were involved in the trials are eager to start growing some of them right away. And no wonder. This past growing season in Puno, after a late, hard frost, a few of the new frost-tolerant lines far outperformed the local varieties, yielding twice as many pounds of potato per plot.

The CALS team hopes these more dependable potato plants will help bolster Peru’s vulnerable rural communities.

“If the farmers could send part of their harvest to market, even 10 or 20 percent, they could have some money to invest in community development—in things like clinics, schools and libraries,” says del Rio.

Field Notes: Certified Seed Potatoes for Kenya

When scientists in Kenya needed help developing a certification program for seed potatoes, a CALS plant pathologist stepped up to the task.

The new program is run by Kenya’s Agricultural Development Corporation (ADC), a government-controlled agency charged with improving agricultural programs throughout the nation.

“They were looking for somebody to help improve their certification program. Since it’s my job at the UW to do this kind of thing, I applied,” says Brooke Weber, a scientist with the CALS-based Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Tissue Culture Laboratory, which helps produce certified disease-free seed potatoes for Wisconsin growers.

A nonprofit agency called CNFA, which supports economic growth in the developing world by empowering the private sector, selected Weber for the position, paying for her flight to Nairobi as well as her three-week visit to the ADC Molo Seed Potato Complex in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province.

On her first day at ADC, Weber went straight to the tissue culture laboratory and greenhouse facilities to learn about ADC’S main areas of concern and to discuss how to make her trip as productive as possible. From there, Weber launched into training ADC scientists how to run various diagnostic tests for plant-associated microorganisms at the tissue culture and greenhouse level.

It didn’t take long for her to experience one of the obstacles her peers in Kenya regularly face. “The electricity cuts in and out. If you are working in a sterile hood, the fan will go out and there’s nothing you can do about it. It takes a few minutes for the backup generator to kick in,” says Weber. “Still, I was really impressed by how well their tissue culture lab worked, considering the less-than-ideal conditions.”

Due to limitations associated with the available diagnostic tests, Weber recommended that ADC implement a broad pathogen eradication procedure for all of the company’s potato lines. “It’s very expensive to initiate numerous diagnostic tests, so a lot of times when you don’t know what microorganisms are present, it’s better to assume everything is infected and put all plants through a curing process,” she says.

Weber was also able to share some helpful tips to improve the company’s tissue culture media, increase lighting in the growth rooms and optimize the nutrient solution sprayed in the aeroponic systems used to grow mini-tubers.

Since returning to Madison Weber has stayed in contact with ADC scientists, exchanging e-mail correspondence regularly. She plans to assist with the pathogen eradication procedure from Madison, offering advice and answering questions via e-mail and Skype as needed.

“It is an ongoing project,” Weber says. “That has been the most rewarding part of this experience.”

In the Field: Alumni who are making a difference in Food Science

About In the Field

These alumni represent the depth and breadth
of alumni accomplishments. Selections are
made by Grow staff and are intended to reflect
a sample of alumni stories. It is not a ranking or
a comprehensive list. To read more about CALS
alumni, go to dev.cals.wisc.edu/alumni/

Know a CALS grad whose work should be highlighted in Grow? E-mail us at: grow@cals.wisc.edu

Next issue: Alumni from Landscape Architecture

Rhona S. Applebaum

Rhona Applebaum is vice president and chief scientific and regulatory officer at The Coca-Cola Company, where she leads global scientific and regulatory affairs. “We’re responsible for driving evidence-based research and education programs and advancing regulatory science strategies to fuel innovation and marketing of our products,” she says. Her group’s other responsibilities include helping communicate the company’s positions on scientific and regulatory matters and promoting dialogue and understanding of Coca-Cola’s products and ingredients.

What fuels her passion? “Making a difference and giving back,” she says. “I am totally committed to the importance of mentoring and coaching young people in their careers. And I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t say I guide them into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines at every chance.”

And when Applebaum offers advice on graduate study? “For those wanting advanced degrees in food science or another STEM specialty, UW is at the top of my list,” she says. “Wouldn’t
the world be grand if more folks were Badgers?”