Meet the Food Safety Experts and Extension Educators: Renee Boyer, Monica Ponder, and Laura Strawn

May 26, 2016

AgIsAmerica sat down with three researchers and Extension specialists at Virginia Tech to learn more about food safety and how it impacts both individuals and industry.

Renee Boyer is an associate professor of food science and technology and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Professor Boyer leads Virginia’s Food Safety Team and Extension programs that focus on Consumer Food Safety Education. She earned her Ph.D. and master’s degree from Virginia Tech and her B.S. from Radford University.

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech CALS

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech CALS

Monica Ponder is an associate professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Professor Ponder is an expert in probiotics and food borne diseases as well as validating processes for reduction of pathogens in foods. She earned her Ph.D. from Michigan State University and her B.A. from Miami University.

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech CALS

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech CALS

Laura Strawn is an assistant professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Professor Strawn is an expert in microbial safety of produce production at both the pre- and post-harvest level as well as the development of educational materials and trainings for producers, packers, and processors.  She earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University, her M.S. from the University of Florida, and her B.S. from University of California, Davis.

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech CALS

Photo Credit: Virginia Tech CALS

Follow our Twitter Town Hall with Virginia Tech on May 26 to ask Drs. Boyer, Ponder, and Strawn more questions! The hashtag is #agischat, and you can submit your questions to @agisamerica and @vtaglifesci.

  1.   Thanks for taking the time to sit down with AgIsAmerica! What are some of your latest research projects?

Boyer: We are working on the development of curriculum and educational materials that target farmers market managers and vendors to help increase the levels of food safety. At the same time, my colleagues and I are assessing consumer knowledge of what mechanically tenderized beef is and how to properly prepare it.

Ponder:  My lab is working on the validation of standard food processing methodologies to destroy human pathogens on low-moisture foods, such as spices and jerky. We are also developing strategies to reduce antibiotic resistant bacteria on fresh produce. Another vein of my research is examining the use of probiotics and prebiotics to improve health and reduce gastrointestinal illness.

Strawn: A lot of my work involves identifying mitigation strategies to prevent Salmonella contamination on-farm. We are also looking at the growth and survival of Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes on whole and sliced cucumbers. Another project is examining the control of cross-contamination during field-packed and retail handling of melons


  1.   Awesome! You said you’re developing educational materials. Can you elaborate on how you incorporate that research into educational materials for consumers and producers?

Boyer: Directly!!  It is pretty easy to see the connection.  For example, with farmers markets, we are conducting observational data collection and microbiological sampling to directly inform messaging and educational material development.

Strawn: I completely agree with Dr. Boyer- directly. My lab group does a lot of outreach with growers by hosting trainings or attending local grower meetings to communicate our on-farm food safety research. We then translate science experiments into practical recommendations that continue the safe production of our food

  1.   Do any farmers markets use these materials?

Boyer: Yes!!  Continually throughout the last five years, we have been training Extension agents across the state to work with farmers market managers and vendors.  I have even done some of the training myself.  We are continually evaluating the effectiveness of our training to change behaviors (sometimes being successful, sometime not).  So we are taking that information and continuing to create new tools and materials to improve the education.

  1.   Wow, that’s great! Is it true – does yogurt really have probiotics that can help digestion? And, what exactly are probiotics, and how else can we incorporate probiotics into our diet?

Ponder:  Probiotics are live microorganisms that when ingested in adequate amounts can improve host health.  Yogurt and fermented foods, such as kombucha, sauerkraut etc., often contain live microorganisms that are important in the creation of the product.  A number of commercial probiotics are on the market and the number of actual live microbes varies widely.  The majority of  probiotic supplements that we buy over the counter are considered dietary supplements because strong scientific evidence is needed to support specific uses for most health conditions.  Currently, no probiotics are approved by the US Food and Drug Association to treat any health problem.

  1.   Memorial Day Weekend is just around the corner, and that means picnics and summer BBQs. What are some food safety tips for outdoor meals, food preparation, and grilling?

Boyer: USE A THERMOMETER!!  That is one of the biggest things that consumers can do.  Make sure that your chicken is cooked to 165 degrees and your burgers are cooked to 160!  This will eliminate any foodborne pathogens that might be in the meat.  Other key tips are 1) keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, using refrigeration or chaffing dishes, this will keep pathogens from growing.  And of course 2) practice good sanitation and hygiene.

  1.   But food safety is more than safe grilling practices, right? What are some of the global implications of food safety research?

Ponder:  Everyone should have access to safe and nutritious food.  By partnering with the food industry and private foundations, our research is helping to improve the safety of our global food supply. Some of our funding also comes from the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture’s program called the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (NIFA/AFRI).

Recently, spices added to food products have been associated with foodborne illnesses, even after cooking.  We have been working to develop strategies to reduce these bad bacteria, including identifying harmless bacteria called surrogates, who behave the same as pathogens, but can be used in a food processing plant to show the processing kill steps are effective.

  1.   How are you working with farmers and producers to increase the safety of their food?

Strawn: Each year, we interact with hundreds of growers to learn about what they are doing and also share with them our science to education them on we are doing – it is a constant back and forth. We learn a lot from each other. I need growers to  communicate what is actually happening in the fields or on-farm so we can simulate those practices during our experiments to perform research that will directly help them. For example, in 2014, there was a multi-state Salmonella outbreak associated with cucumbers; however, very little research existed on the behavior of salmonella on cucumbers at different holding or storage temperatures, so we performed several experiments to answer this – we learned Salmonella will grow on cucumbers held at room temperatures but not on cucumbers held at refrigeration temperatures. This was able to help the industry and consumers understand the behavior of Salmonella on cucumbers. We also looked at other foodborne pathogens, to decrease the void in knowledge.

  1.   What does the land-grant threefold mission of research, teaching, and Extension mean to you?

Boyer: It means translating research that is conducted at the university into real messages and problem solving techniques that are then extended out into the community to teach people skills that can enhance their lives in some way.

Strawn: Translating basic or applied science (RESEARCH) into tangible recommendations for the public, whether growers or consumers (EXTENSION), while training the next generation of professionals (TEACHING).

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