Have you ever gotten sick from the food you ate? If so, you’re hardly alone: the CDC estimates that foodborne illness strikes about 50 million Americans each year. Have you heard about any food-related outbreaks or food recalls recently? Whether it’s in spinach, ground beef, pine nuts, or even pet food, there always seems to be a food source that is contaminated with Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, or another potentially deadly type of bacteria. How are these outbreaks detected? How are they traced to the original source? How are they dealt with? These are the questions that Travis Chapin and Rachel Pfuntner help 4-H’ers explore each summer. Travis and Rachel help run a two and a half day Food Safety workshop that’s part of the 4-H Career Explorations program at Cornell University. Both are PhD students in Martin Wiedmann’s Food Safety Lab, but they also have another thing in common: they were both longtime members of 4H.
Back home in northern Texas, Travis’ early experiences with 4-H involved raising, showing, and breeding Red Angus beef cattle, as well as meat and livestock judging. Through these experiences he learned leadership skills, responsibility, and the value of teamwork. It also led him to pursue a career in Food Science. Rachel, who is a native central New Yorker, bred, raised, and showed Mini Rex rabbits in 4-H. This helped her gain a greater sense of responsibility, cooperation with others, and showmanship. Through 4-H’s Public Presentation Program she began to acquire the confidence and skills to teach others, leading her to pursue a career in teaching.
After such a positive experience with 4-H, Travis and Rachel were happy to take leadership roles in the Career Explorations Program. They designed a series of hands-on activities to guide high school age 4-H’ers through the processes of investigating an outbreak of foodborne illness. Students get practical (and fun!) experience with epidemiology, microbiology, and molecular biology, as well as discovering what food safety has to offer for potential careers.