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K-State Research and Extension

USDA grant advances food safety, education

An estimated 265,000 Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) infections occur in the United States each year. Eating contaminated food or having direct contact with fecal matter from infected cattle causes most of these illnesses.

In 2012, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a five-year, $25 million coordinated agricultural program grant to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. More than 50 researchers from 11 institutions and the USDA Agricultural Research Service are collaborating on interrelated grant projects.

Kansas State University received $8.3 million of the total to support projects in multiple departments and colleges. 

Randy Phebus, professor of animal sciences and industry, serves on the grant’s executive management team and is the principal investigator for the K-State component. He also leads multi-institutional efforts toward the development and validation of antimicrobial technologies applied during beef processing to reduce STEC risks in raw and processed beef products. 

Specific research projects that involve STEC-inoculated carcasses and mimic commercial-scale processing can only be conducted in K-State’s Biosecurity Research Institute in Pat Roberts Hall. 

Project goals include: reducing public health risks related to STECs in the beef system; providing scientific guidance to producers, processors, regulators and consumers to lower incidences of STEC in beef products; and recruiting and energizing the next generation of food safety professionals through degrees and training. 

An advisory council offers industry and producer input for the multiple projects.  

K-State’s Office of Educational Innovation and Evaluation (OEIE) serves as an external evaluator for the project. OEIE tracks publications and presentations, surveys collaborators and collects data, which can be used by the management team to shift the project’s focus if necessary. They also help gauge the impact of grant-generated research and educational programs.

Approximately 100 student interns from across the country are benefiting from STEC research, including several K-Staters. Amanda Wilder, food science master’s student, earned at least $11,500 in scholarships related to her work with the STEC grant. 

K-State alumnus Danny Unruh began his involvement in the STEC grant in fall 2012 as a master’s student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he worked on characterizing destruction of different STECs by heat and high-pressure technologies.

“I wanted to return to K-State for my Ph.D., so I accepted an offer to work with Dr. Sara Gragg at the Olathe campus,” Unruh said.

“The STEC project has shown me there are opportunities to make an impact anywhere — in industry, academia or government. I have learned the value of asking questions, networking and collaboration. I have seen firsthand that big-picture thinking and attention-to-detail are both important skills moving forward as a scientist in this field.”   

Phebus said there is still a lot of work to do. “The grant was recently extended through November 2017 to complete our research, education and outreach activities across all of our participating institutions. 

“It will be a busy 2017 for our K-State team to conduct this research; prepare educational materials and courses derived from this grant; finish off the last batch of student interns; and meet our outreach goals to industry, consumers and youth audiences.”