During this Expert Spotlight, we spoke with Dr. Elizabeth A. Bihn, Senior Extension Associate in the Department of Food Science at Cornell University and Executive Director of the IFS@CU.
Betsy’s extension program is focused on helping fruit and vegetable growers and packers understand food safety concepts and implement food safety practices on their farms. Her research on irrigation water quality supports her extension research. In addition to leading the IFS@CU, Betsy is the Director of the Produce Safety Alliance and the National Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) Program.
We asked Betsy four questions to learn more about her career path, her perspectives on what has had a significant impact on food safety and the challenges associated with implementing the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and her reflections on the IFS@CU. Here’s how she responded:
Q1: You have a diverse educational background with a B.S. from Ohio State in Zoology, an M.S. from the University of Florida in Horticulture, and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in Food Science. In retrospect, what was the defining moment that sparked your interest in food safety?
R1: There was not a defining moment, but there was a defining career. Working in food safety has allowed me to use all of my education quite literally stretching from the fecal material of animals used as soil amendments, to understanding fruit and vegetable production, while considering how practices can reduce microbial risks so that all consumers, including me and my family, have access to delicious fruits and vegetables. Zoology, horticulture, food science… it’s all there.
Q2: Your career in food safety has spanned almost two decades. Looking back, what was the most significant impact in food safety at the start of your career? Looking ahead, what do you foresee as a potential impact in the future?
R2: When I started, produce safety was a novel concept. The 1998 FDA Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables had just been released, growers were not familiar with GAPs, and I do not even think one third-party audit had been done on a farm yet. Now we have a federal regulation that governs fruit and vegetable production. Looking forward, climate change is definitely going to impact fruit and vegetable production with inconsistent rain events, resulting in droughts and/or flooding making growing more challenging. In addition to climate issues, pathogens are going to continue to evolve as is our ability to detect these pathogens. Hopefully we will be able to use our increased knowledge to develop practices that reduce risks while supporting growers to continue producing fruits and vegetables so we all have access to fresh produce.
Q3: You also serve as the Director of the Produce Safety Alliance and the National Good Agricultural Practices Program. In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing farmers with the FDA’s FSMA? How do you think the farming community will overcome this challenge?
R3: Implementing food safety practices is another challenge for growers on top of the weather, pests, market changes, and labor challenges. The difficult part is that there is not one way to make it work and we do not have all of the science to clearly understand how best to control risks. Thankfully, growers face many challenges and are accustomed to solving problems. Our job is to give them the best information we have and provide feedback when they are trouble shooting specific issues.
Q4: What do you see as the most important outcome that will stem from the work the IFS@CU is doing?
R4: The most important outcome from the work the IFS@CU is doing is to make food safety information more accessible to our stakeholders and fill a niche for training and educational material development that is not currently being filled. Cornell’s Dept of Food Science has world renowned food safety programs and faculty so the goal is to build on that foundation, improve access and communication with all stakeholders, and earn the reputation of being the first place people go for food safety information and training.