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Old-school lessons could make artisan cheese safer

While current training for food safety and sanitation usually incorporates high-tech presentations, such as videos and slideshows, there is still a need for low-tech approaches, according to new research.

For unique audiences, such as employees of small-scale dairies that produce artisan cheeses, old-school teaching strategies that do not require electricity may work best. Workers in this sector need better training because of the inherent food-safety risks associated with producing specialty cheeses—mostly from raw milk.

“Investigating and proposing solutions to improve food safety in this sector is important, given that dairy farm and processing environments may be responsible for foodborne pathogens that can contaminate raw milk, cheese, and other dairy products,” says Catherine Cutter, professor of food science at the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State. “Little is known about the food-safety and sanitation knowledge, behavior, attitude, and skills of farmstead cheesemakers in the US.”

Low-tech solution

Cutter, assistant director of food safety programs for the university’s extension program, notes that after performing a two-year assessment of farmstead cheese-makers in Pennsylvania, her research group developed alternative training materials such as customized, richly illustrated, color flipcharts to train workers.

The first lesson in the training describes the four steps for cleaning and sanitizing and why they are needed, and the basics of cross-contamination and how to avoid it. (Credit: Penn State Extension)

“These presentations can be given on a picnic table, in a barn, or on a front porch,” she says. “We saw a need to think outside-the-box for training this audience and developed a method to help them, building on previous work done by colleagues in our department. And while we were working with small-scale cheese-makers in Pennsylvania, what we came up with could be adapted for other similar audiences across the country.”

“We saw an improvement in certain microbial populations, such as a reduction in E. coli and other indicators of hygiene.”

Lead researcher Robson Machado, a faculty member at the University of Maine who was a doctoral student in food science at Penn State when he conducted the research, assessing the sanitation, personal hygiene, and food-safety practices of 17 small-scale cheese-making operations. Machado administered pre- and post-tests to workers that addressed food-safety knowledge, attitude, and behavior, as well as an evaluation of hand-washing skills. He also tested environmental samples from the processing plants to see what microorganisms were present and where they were located.

Then, Machado gave workers the low-tech food-safety training and documented how they altered their behavior later. Afterward, he measured to see if the newly trained cheese-makers’ actions improved conditions at their plants. He discovered that they had.

Tailored approach, big impact

The curriculum Machado and Cutter developed for the training contains strategies that consider specific characteristics of small and very small dairy farms. It includes two lessons designed to provide workers on dairy farms with the knowledge, skills, and a comprehensive explanation of the food-safety rules that they need to follow at work.

“What we found is that the processors think that they are doing a great job when the reality is they’re not.”

The first lesson in the training describes the four steps for cleaning and sanitizing and why they are needed, and the basics of cross-contamination and how it can be avoided.

Investigating and proposing solutions to improve food safety in the artisan cheesemaker sector is important, given that dairy farm and processing environments may be responsible for foodborne pathogens that can contaminate raw milk, cheese, and other dairy products.

The second lesson describes the importance of good personal hygiene practices and shows the correct procedure for hand washing, the correct use of gloves, and other personal habits.

“Not only did the training have an impact on the food handlers themselves, but we also assessed the environment to see if we could see a reduction in microbes,” Machado says. “We saw an improvement in certain microbial populations, such as a reduction in E. coli and other indicators of hygiene.”

One troubling aspect of the research was that participating small-scale cheesemakers did not seem to know they were not following sound food safety principles before being trained, Cutter points out.

“What we found is that the processors think that they are doing a great job when the reality is they’re not,” she says. “The research that Robson did in this study indicated that sanitation and personal hygiene are problems.”

In a sort of epilogue to this research, other food safety specialists are now developing flip chart-focused lessons to train Amish growers to comply with produce standards in the federal Food Safety Modernization Act.

The research will appear in the journal Food Protection Trends.

This research was supported by the College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension.

Source: Penn State

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