iFSN tries new approach to appeal to MTV generation
13.aug.07, Luke Thompson, Manhattan Mercury (KS)
13.aug.07, Luke Thompson, Manhattan Mercury (KS)
With the help of his team of researchers, a barfblog, and T-shirts, Doug Powell is trying to make food safety more relevant for college students
Every day in newspapers around the country, food safety issues make headlines.
At Kansas State's International Food Safety Network, director Douglas Powell and his staff are seeking to make that news culturally relevant to the MTV generation. By launching a website that features commentary, a barfblog and even sells T-shirts that read "don't eat poop", Powell and his team of researchers are trying a new approach to food safety, which he admits can often be boring. So far, it appears to be working, as hits on the website (foodsafety.ksu.edu) went from 985 unique visitors in May to more than 1300 in June, with significant increases each week.
"It seems to be catching on," Powell said. "But we don't push it too much."
Boring or not, food safety is a serious issue, as Powell said 76 million people in the US get sick from the food and water they consume each year, and about 5,000 die. Twenty-five percent of people in developed countries fall ill each year due to unsafe food, and that number is probably higher in reality, according to the World Health Organization. The FSN is focused on microbial safety and focused on helping people eliminate bacteria, beginning with farms that produce the food.
"What you really need to do is make sure every farmer and every employee on that farm is doing what they're supposed to do," Powell said.
Powell came to Kansas State from the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, in fall 2005. He was visiting a fellow professor, Justin Kastner, and after a few meetings with professors and president Jon Wefald, he accepted an offer to move his lab to KSU.
In the beginning, Powell and his staff mostly did research and found articles relating to food safety and sent them out on a listserv to thousands of interested people and groups. The FSN research team finds about 200 articles each day by using Google and other more advanced searching tools.
Then, in 2004, the FSN reported a research project that showed during 60 hours of watching celebrity cooking shows, mostly in Canada, the chefs made a food safety mistake every four minutes. Powell said the report drew a huge response, and he realized he'd discovered a new way to communicate to his audience.
Soon, the FSN website was redesigned, and Powell, who had briefly been a reporter, began writing commentary designed to catch people's attention.
Rather than just telling people to wash their hands or take care of their food, the FSN uses catchy slogans and pictures and disgusting stories designed to liven up issues that can sometimes be deadly.
"If I say, 'Wash your hands', people might not listen, but if I say 'Don't eat poop'…" Powell said as he smiles, knowing he doesn't have to finish the sentence.
The "don't eat poop" campaign has spawned a website (donteatpoop.k-state.edu) and warns people of how poop and bacteria gets into food if farmers or other don't wash their hands properly. This problem was illustrated most vividly in the fall 2006 outbreak of E. Coli in fresh lettuce and spinach.
The FSN also puts out info sheets, which attempt to find interesting ways to highlight the most important parts of each week's food safety news for the general public. In one sheet from October 2006 that draws a laugh from Powell, a researcher lies face down on the floor with a spilled glass of carrot juice forming a skull on the floor. The sheet tells of the dangers of the deadly botulin toxin, which results from leaving baked potatoes and carrots at room temperature with no oxygen.
The latest experiment from the FSN is the "barfblog". It's a collection of musings from the group's staff about relevant issues in the news ranging from food poisoning for celebrities to outbreaks of diseases like salmonella.
In a college town, the focus on food safety at all levels of production is especially important, since so many restaurants have students on their wait staff. Powell said he's always skeptical of whether or not food safety guidelines are being followed when he eats out in Aggieville.
"You're vulnerable to the last person touching your food and that's some kid who's more worried about their date tonight," Powell said.
College students have also been part of a nation-wide trend toward organic foods. Powell said many hold misconceptions that organic procedures make their food safer.
"Right now, the biggest impediment is everyone is talking about local food and natural food," Powell said. "Organic is a production system, not a food-safety system."
Powell described himself as "a one-man show", and he works mostly at home, staying in contact with his staff via the Internet. He has four undergrads at KSU working for him and Brae Surgeoner, who owns a masters degree in Food Safety and Risk Communication, serves as his full-time research assistant.
His wife, Amy Hubbell, is a French professor at KSU and the Language and Culture Coordinator for the FSN.
Powell said he's looking for more help and students may e-mail him if they'd like a job working with the website and the additional multimedia he'd like to add to it. Some funding deals are pending, and he has plans to enhance the site and continue to find better ways to inform the masses about food safety.
"The ultimate goal is fewer sick people," Powell said.