Food industry personnel find essential knowledge base in UA workshop

May 10, 2010
Contact Information:

Steven C. Ricke, director, UA Center for Food Safety
479-575-4678, sricke@uark.edu

Dave Edmark, Division of Agriculture Communications
479-575-5647 / dedmark@uark.edu

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robert story

Robert Story explains the theory behind the lab work during the food microbiology workshop at the UA Center for Food Safety. A small class of students allows for personal instruction.
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amanda makowski and alisa beasley

Amanda Makowski (left), a UA Center for Food Safety staff member, and Alisa Beasley, a microbiology lab technician at a Boar’s Head meat processing plant in Jarratt, Va., were students at a recent food microbiology workshop.
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alisa beasley

Alisa Beasley applies lab techniques from the food microbiology curriculum.
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The white, loose-leaf binder that’s about a few inches thick gets frequent mention by Robert Story when he teaches a workshop that might be the next best thing to private tutoring. The binder is commonly known as “the manual” and has roughly the equivalent of a full-semester course in food microbiology. Story condenses and teaches it in two and a half days.

“The manual has all the details,” explains Story, who supervises laboratory activities at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Center for Food Safety. For 17 years he has taught the laboratory portion of a full-semester Food Microbiology course on which the workshop is based. Story has taught the workshop for four years.

People with jobs in the food processing industry around the nation come to Fayetteville to take the workshop – no more than six at a time allowed and usually fewer – and pay close attention as Story unloads a mountain of data, experiments, tutorials and instructive tips to those who go through the hands-on experience.

In the approximately 20 hours of instruction, students will learn about laboratory biosafety, the microscope, cultures, bacterial growth and enumeration, petri dishes and petrifilm and an introduction to yeasts and molds. Those 20 hours have their roots in the Food Microbiology full-semester course that Michael Johnson, emeritus professor of food science, taught from 1984 until his retirement in 2009.

From his own industrial work and consulting experiences, Johnson set out with the key help of Story and Jim Goff to develop the course’s lab portion to focus on preparing people with a minimum of previous experience to be able to respond to practical questions that he was asked by food processing managers. The key focus was for the student to be able to design a good biological experiment to help answer the question at hand.

“The overarching goal for the student was twofold,” Johnson said. “One was to be a good problem solver in food microbiology and also to be a good bus driver.“ That includes being a team leader who gets fellow employees to better understand and focus on the problem at hand, ask the appropriate questions needed for solving the problem and steer the company successfully through the microbiology issues at hand.

“Before you can defeat or control the enemy – the microbes of public health and spoilage significance – one must first know the enemy,” Johnson said. “The condensed and sharply focused workshop and manual so ably developed and enhanced by Robert Story does just that. It helps the student get to better know the microbial enemy and thus how to defeat or at least keep it in check.”

Those enrolling in the workshop, offered seven times a year, range from people with food science degrees who may need a refresher to those with little to no academic background in microbiology. Those with no experience with microbiology have included food processing plant managers. “One supervisor told me he really appreciates the lab personnel more,” Story said.

One plant employee who recently took the workshop class has 10 years of on-the-job experience as a microbiology lab technician at the Boar’s Head meat processing plant in Jarratt, Va., but never studied it in college. Alisa Beasley, who learned about the UA workshop from a Boar’s Head colleague, made the trip to Fayetteville to become better acquainted with the science that governs what she’s been doing all these years.

“I hope to take back something that I can use,” Beasley said. “It’s good to have the background knowledge behind what you’re doing.” She was also grateful to have the manual to take home for reference at the Boar’s Head lab.

Before getting into actual lab work on an experiment, Story held short class sessions for Beasley and her lab partner Amanda Makowski. Makowski is a UA Center for Food Safety staff employee who graduated a year ago with a bachelor’s degree in food science and who will enter graduate school this fall in poultry science. The workshop served as a way for her to learn more about how food-specific situations relate to microbiological problems through a "hands-on" approach that taught her many concepts that she did not know.

“I frequently assign student staffers to participate in the workshops,” said Steven Ricke, director of the UA Center for Food Safety. “The students can help familiarize the industry people with our lab procedures, plus the workshop also serves as a very nice complementary component of their undergraduate or graduate school education here by being able to actually interact with fellow workshop participants from industry. It certainly gives the students a chance to get reacquainted with the whys and hows of day-to-day science that serves as the foundation for the complex problems in food safety that we explore in the research center all year long.”

Ricke emphasized that the real value for students as they interact with participants from the food industry during the workshop is that they get to see first hand the issues that people already working in the industry are encountering. “It's the next best thing to actually being in a food industry lab,” he said. “Likewise, the industry participants certainly enjoy interacting with the students and appreciate the knowledge and enthusiasm that they bring.”

Brian Umberson is marketing and sales manager with Litmus Rapid-B, a Little Rock biotechnology company that recently began collaborating on projects with the UA Center for Food Safety. Although not a scientist, he took the workshop to familiarize himself with the material.

"I have a marketing degree but communicate with microbiologists every day,” Umberson said. “I needed to understand lab fundamentals, plating, and the details of various organisms. I needed intense training that allowed a beginner's status trainee to feel comfortable enough to learn. We are like many companies that are running very lean, thus some employees can't afford to be gone for a whole week of training. We looked around at some training facilities and this is the most intense training we could get in such a short block of time. The quite intense but not overwhelming workshop gave me a tremendous respect for microbiology."

Bio-Tech Pharmacal, a nutritional supplement manufacturer in Fayetteville, also sends personnel to the workshops. Levi Simpson, the company’s quality manager and laboratory director, was pleased with the results.

“Like the food and pharmaceutical industries, we follow good manufacturing practices that include the control of potential microbiological contamination,” Simpson said. “This workshop was an excellent way to augment our understanding of the principles and practice of microbiology and to discover ways that we can improve our quality system. The workshop also provided an opportunity for us to establish important contacts with academic partners. We are pleased that the University of Arkansas is supporting industry with this type of program.”

Workshop directors are eager to provide more industry personnel with the benefits of small-class instruction. Besides the food microbiology course, workshops are offered at various times of the year on molecular biology and biotechnology, new product development, food protection and other topics. The current offerings are listed online with enrollment information at http://www.uark.edu/ua/foodpro/Workshops.

"The beauty of this workshop is that no prior knowledge is really needed for a person to benefit from taking it,” Ricke said. “The completeness of the material presented and the personal touch that Robert brings as an instructor guarantees that a person will walk out of the workshop with a comprehensive knowledge of food microbiology equal to much longer and larger classroom laboratory offerings.

“In this economic climate we offer some of the best value for dollars spent and can ensure that employees with nontraditional backgrounds can quickly get up to speed and go back to their company with a newfound expertise to not only do the necessary work required for food safety but now have the knowledge required to help management make critical decisions.”

Ricke added that more experienced people can get a refresher on techniques they may not have used lately and add more techniques to their current laboratory expertise. They can also get a more in-depth rationale for techniques that they have been using, although they may not have understood why they were using those techniques. "Knowing why can make lab personnel much more effective as troubleshooters when assays don't behave the way they are supposed to,” he said.

“Given the changing nature of foodborne pathogens, sources of outbreaks and new regulations, everyone needs to continue learning new techniques,” Ricke said. “In short, there is something for everybody."

Students who make the journey over the three days of the food microbiology workshop will likely feel as if they’ve been through a whirlwind. “They get a lot of information and can feel overwhelmed,” Story said. “But they can incorporate this information wherever they go. They’ll understand the physiology of these organisms and get more tools to use in their tool box.”