When you buy strawberries at the grocery store, do you think about the last person who touched them? As a food safety expert, Prof. Robert Gravani, food science, does.
Strawberries are often picked and packaged in clamshells — clear, one-piece plastic containers — in the field. That means, when those berries get to the grocery store, the last person who touched them was a farm worker who packed them. “Is that person a food-handler?” Gravani asked. “I think so.”
For the past 32 years, Gravani has educated many people in the food system on safety.
“I’m working with the industry, production agriculture, processors, retailers, the food service industry, as well as regulatory agencies and consumers. I look at the food system in its entirety and work with various pieces of that large entity to share our thoughts about food safety and quality issues.”
By educating all of these players — “the Industry-Academic-Regulatory triumvirate,” as he calls them collectively — Gravani works to minimize the risks of dangerous, foodborne microorganisms, especially in fruits and vegetables.
Gravani started the National Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Program at Cornell in 1999. Funded by the US Department of Agriculture, the GAPs program serves as a major resource of information for produce growers and processors on how they can reduce risks through their actions. GAPs cover several major areas, including manure use, irrigation, worker hygiene, sanitation, post-harvest processing and traceability.
Manure, for example, can be a source of foodborne pathogens that come from gastrointestinal tracts of animals. Produce growers, who are unsure how to apply manure, can access detailed information on the GAPs website about safe manure application. Specifically, growers should record sources of manure, and they should not apply manure directly to crops or after 120 days prior to harvest. They also should not apply it directly to crops, and should take measure to prevent manure runoff into water sources, according to a pamphlet “Food Safety Begins on the Farm.”
To Gravani, however, GAPs are most effective because they recognize the importance of individuals in the food system.
“It’s all about the people ... whether its farm workers on the farm, or whether it’s processing plant employees, or food service employees, or folks behind the deli counter in retail. It’s all about how well we do what we’re supposed to do, and how knowledgeable we are, and it’s all about what I like to call ‘a culture of food safety.’”
If farm workers do not have access to adequate sanitation facilities, like portable toilets and hand-washing facilities, they can contaminate the fruit with germs, especially if they are ill. Many growers are not aware of the importance of sanitation facilities in their fields. Gravani, along with program coordinator Elizabeth Bihn, work with growers to incorporate safety considerations into their farm management.
In addition to GAPs, Gravani collaborates with Prof. Michael Shapiro, communication, on public service announcements for food preparation practices at home. The researchers have developed advertisements with narrative messages about food safety. The advertisements have been filmed, and the researchers are planning to show the advertisements to focus groups in upstate New York soon. They will measure psychophysical reactions to understand how the audience responds.
Gravani’s third research goal educates people with life-threatening food allergies.
He explained, “We interviewed about 80 people … Many people don’t carry their EpiPens. Sometimes people carry expired EpiPens. Sometimes they leave them in places where they shouldn’t leave them, like glove compartments of cars, where they don’t do well under high heat and extremes of temperature. Those things are important to help people not only people with severe food allergies but also the physicians who give them information.”
Gravani’s passion for communicating with people across the food system has not gone unnoticed. Last year, he was nominated President-elect of the Institute of Food Technologists, the largest professional and academic food science society in the world.
Gravani won, but did not let the election overwhelm him. “I’ve seen some people run for this office and not be elected, and they were totally crushed. But you know what, I have a great day job, and if the election doesn’t come my way, that’s okay. I’ll still be a strong supporter of [the] IFT.” This summer Gravani will transition from President-elect to President.
On top of extension, research and leading an international scientific society, Gravani teaches three food science courses.
He designed a unique course for second semester freshman food science majors, called “Leadership and Career Skills in Food Science.” Gravani tailored the course for two goals: student bonding within the major and developing students’ interpersonal skills. “We deal with things like ethics and diversity, which we need to be more cognizant of, but team building is a very really important characteristic.”
True to his mission of food safety education, Gravani offered practical advice, “Wash your hands, before, during and after food prep and before eating. Food is a biological entity, and should be treated accordingly.”