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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

May 21, 2004

Consumers a big part of food safety institute's work

by Linda Charles

Iowa State's Institute for Food Safety and Food Security will offer something other food safety centers around the country don't -- an emphasis on what average people think and ways to communicate effectively with them.

"Most of the food safety centers are based in bench-level science, with traditional molecular geneticists or immunologists," said Jim Dickson, interim institute director and professor in the department of animal science. "We have that too, but we're also including the social scientists.

"We want to know how to reach the consumer, how to let the consumer know what is real and what is not real. We want to know what the average person in the grocery store believes and whether that belief affects his or her buying habits," Dickson said.

For example, the Mad Cow Disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) scare appears to have had little effect on people in the United States, Dickson said. Sales of beef went down for about a week following the discovery of a case in the United States, but then it returned to normal.

One of the goals of the center will be to provide information to public in a way that is easily understandable, Dickson said.

"Often, scientists communicate in their own language, but if you talk to the public in that language, you might as well be speaking Russian."

'Big impact' idea

The Institute for Food Safety and Food Security was one of five academic initiatives that received start-up funds from the president's office in FY03. These "big impact" ideas are intended to respond to critical needs in Iowa and the country, and enhance Iowa State's status among peer land-grant schools.

The institute has seven units that deal with food-borne infectious diseases, food production (including post-harvest processing), food service and retail, international food security, public policy and communication, and food-borne disease models and risk analysis.

In addition to consumers, the center will serve farmers, producers and processors.

The administrative offices for the institute are in Curtiss Hall. About 70 faculty from across campus work with the institute on a volunteer basis.

Workshops planned

Dickson said researchers within the institute have received a $500,000 grant from the USDA-CSREES to help prioritize food safety issues through a series of workshops around the country.

The first workshop will be held in Ames in June. Participants will look at how risk assessments are conducted and explore ways to do them better. Three other workshops exploring other food safety issues will be held around the country, with the last in Washington, D.C.

Dickson said he expects the workshops to generate a white paper that could have a long-term impact on the way regulatory agencies approach food safety issues.

The institute received $100,000 this year in base funding. From that, about $35,000 was given to the seven units for graduate student support, Dickson said.

'Hot topic' research

Eventually, he added, institute officials hope to award about $250,000 each year to "hot topic" research projects. The institute is pursuing industry partners to fund that research. There are approximately 19 food safety centers in the United States, Dickson said, and all the successful ones have partnered with industry.

The usual procedure is to set up a steering committee and give industry some input into the general direction of center's research, but the money given by the industry is considered a gift and the industry has no direct control over how it is used, Dickson said.

Dickson, who heads the national search committee, said a permanent director for the center should be in place sometime between July and September.

"We have a tremendous future," Dickson said of the center. "I'm excited to see what it's going to be in five years. We have been slow in growing, and the key is to get the right institute director. We need someone who is on board full time. But we've made a lot of progress already."


"We want to know how to reach the consumer, how to let the consumer know what is real and what is not real. We want to know what the average person in the grocery store believes and whether that belief affects his or her buying habits."

Jim Dickson