Colorado State University will take a leading role in one of five Food Safety Centers of Excellence, helping to improve farm-to-fork food safety in the nation. As collaborators in a $200,000 Centers for Disease Control grant, CSU food safety experts will focus on developing educational materials and training about produce production for epidemiologists and other public health professionals who respond to foodborne illness outbreaks.

The center is a partnership between Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado State University. The ultimate goal of the centers, created by the Centers for Disease Control last week as part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, is to help decrease the burden of foodborne illness through faster detection, investigation, control and reporting of outbreaks. The CDC’s Oct. 18 designation of the centers follows serious foodborne illness outbreaks from fresh produce, including a deadly Listeria outbreak linked to fresh cantaloupe.

“The recent Listeria outbreak associated with fresh melons grown in Colorado signals the immediate need to increase the awareness of potential food safety issues with fresh produce production and processing,” said Marisa Bunning, an Extension food safety specialist at Colorado State in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. Bunning will coordinate the CSU portion of the grant.

CSU professors were highly involved in responding to the Listeria outbreak, including helping to determine the source and providing food safety education. The CDC grant builds on collaborative efforts already taking place among food safety experts in CSU’s College of Applied Human Science’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Public health professionals involved in foodborne illness surveillance and investigations of foodborne illness outbreaks rely on food and agriculture professionals for information about on-farm food production methods and supply chain distribution.

CSU plans to develop educational training on food production, including through online systems, to help local and regional public health professionals have a better understanding of agricultural practices and food distribution systems.

“This project will help train and support public health professionals working in surveillance and outbreak investigations to have a better understanding of regional food production and distribution systems and immediate access to specific crop production information when needed. CSU also will establish a database of information for use by public health professionals about Colorado’s most commonly grown produce crops.” Bunning said.

Colorado was selected through a highly competitive selection process along with Minnesota, Oregon, Tennessee and Florida. Within the Colorado School of Public Health, CSU experts involved in food safety have recently formed a collaborative network among universities, government and industry in Colorado to focus on preventing foodborne disease. This group, which is in the process of forming its own Center for Food Safety and Prevention of Foodborne Illness in Colorado, was instrumental in developing the CDC proposal.

The Colorado School of Public Health includes partners from University of Colorado and University of Northern Colorado. CSU collaborators on the project include Bunning, assistant professor and Extension specialist in food safety in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition; Patricia Kendall, associate dean of Research in the College of Applied Human Sciences; Martha Sullins, an agriculture and business management Extension specialist in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Dawn Thimany, a professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics; and advisors in the Departments of Animal Sciences; Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology; and Veterinary Medicine as well as the School of Public Health.