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Our lives are frequently and significantly affected by food. Because we must eat to survive, many human cultures have developed with food at their very core. The goal of this podcast is to explore the complexity and nuance of food systems, celebrate the progress we have made, and debate the best ways for humans to proceed forward into the future. 

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Feb 9, 2021

In this episode, we discuss one professor’s pure joy in impacting the community by keeping food safe. Dr. Valentina Trinetta's research focuses on understanding the ecology of foodborne pathogens and identifying microbial entry routes into the food supply chain. Dr. Trinetta also works on the development and implementation of antimicrobial intervention strategies to reduce and control foodborne pathogens in different commodities.



The Power of Passion: The next generation of researchers with Dr. Valentina Trinetta, assistant professor in animal science and industry


We are in a phase where the food system has become so complex that we cannot not consider it all the part of this chain or this system.


Something to chew on is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.


And I'm Colene Lind, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State. I studied the public's role in science and environmental policy.


And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a food scientist.


Hello everyone and welcome back to Kansas State University's podcast something to chew on. In today's podcast we visit with Dr. Valentina Tonetta. Dr. Trinetta has passion for understanding ways to keep food safe is outpaced only by her passion for teaching. Her research focus is on understanding foodborne pathogens ecology and identifying microbial entry routes into the farm for food supply chain. Dr. Trinetta also works on the development and implementation of anti microbial intervention strategies to reduce and control foodborne pathogens in commodities. Dr. Trinetta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Animal Science and Industry at Kansas State. She carries a BS in Food Biotechnology from the University of Pisa Italy, a master's in Genetics, Biotechnology for food safety from the University of Naples, Italy, and a PhD in food science and technology from the University of Milan, Italy. Dr. Valentina Fernando, we want to welcome you to the Global Food Systems podcast Something to Chew On. Before we get started, in our discussion today, I would like to ask you to visit with us a bit about some of your background and how you got to become so interested in the area that you work in today.


Thank you for the invitation. As you probably understand from my accent, I am Italian. I was thinking when I was a child that I wanted to be a medical doctor. But I realize that I'm very afraid of blood and needles. And so I decided to become a doctor of food. So since my start in the university, all my degrees are in Food Science. My masters and my PhD are in Food Science. And slowly I got very interested in food safety. I spent part of my PhD at Penn State University and really fell in love with research and the opportunity that I could see at Penn State and in general, doing your research in the United States. Therefore I continue with a postdoc at Purdue. And before starting my position at Kansas State in 2016, I worked for a corporation a chemical company Ecolab in Minneapolis, and in all my experience I work with different commodity but always in food safety and trying to control them transfer foodborne pathogens in the food supply chain. Since 2016, I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, with my family. And I am an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and Industry. And I'm also a faculty of the Food Science Institute. I have a heavy load of teaching Food Microbiology and then all the rest of my appointment is research.


Very interesting. I see you had mentioned that you are in the Department of Animal Science and Industry. But it looks to me from looking at your areas of expertise in the studies that you've obviously done before you came to K State. You got interested in capabilities for reaching beyond just the animal science area? Is that correct?


Yes, exactly. I'm working a lot on product safety. And even if I am part of the Animal Sciences and Industry department being part of the Food Sciences Institute is key, because I'm fortunate enough to be connected with the multicultural department of Kansas state and with some faculty in Olathe campus, and they're pretty strong in Urban Food System. And the last three years, we have been pretty successful on working on produce safety. In Kansas and Missouri, we do have several projects, looking at improving shelf life and quality of berries, trying to help the Kansas producer with transportation and ensuring quality of these small crops, we recently got a bigger grant on sponsored by USDA NIFA, to help always grower in Kansas semi story to make sure their water that they use for crop production is a safe. And so this has given me a little bit of versatility of not always working with the same type of commodity, but working with different people, different reality, different food matrices, and trying to apply the same type of mental approach, but in a different way. Because the situation and the production of produce is completely different than animal food.


So help me out a little bit I people as I talk to people or students and talk about the supply chain, and now they're starting to hear people are starting to hear about the supply chain is that applies to the COVID vaccine. How would you define the supply chain? What's the good definition for that that we could use? Or I could use as a starting point in talking to two people or students?


So I think I would and this is also based on what in my previous job that represented the supply chain for the corporation or for the company. So I always refer to that situation, at least in my mind and to talk with students, I think we can define production chain from farm to fork, but I would define supply chain all those operations that transport the product. So when I talk about supply chain, I always refer to the part that goes towards retailer when the finished product is produced and there needs to reach the consumer they. Regarding your question about COVID vaccine, I was fortunate enough that to be involved in a recent grant getting sponsored by USDA NIFA was a emergency call. And we put together a set of experts from Kansas State University. And since the strength of the Food Sciences Institute and animal science is the ability to work in the food wings at the BRI we partner with a virologist at the vet school and we are going to see all the parameter that can in the production part of animal food that can influence the spread of COVID-19. So we are excited we started officially this project in September. We are still at the BSL two level working with surrogate we are ready to start with the BSL three virus at the BRI in January. We are going to evaluate air flow different surfaces, foot contact, not foot contact and understand how the food industry can use the tool that we already have as disinfection and sanitation to try to overcome the spread of COVID.


Valentina, I want to learn more about this research regarding COVID-19. And that you're working on. But before we leave this concept of the production chain from farm to fork, I wanted to follow up on Jon's question a little bit. I think that that's a very interesting and informative way to distinguish the supply chain from the production chain. I, as I listened to you talk about, for example, the work that you're doing with K State Olathe, and water in the urban food system, I was reminded that, at least it seems to me that food safety really emphasizes that food systems are a system and a very complex system. I mean, I think about how contamination with water can end up contaminating crops and end up contaminating a salad that ends up in a restaurant somewhere. So what I'm getting at is, is it really a chain? Or is it something even more complex than a chain that you as a food safety scientists have to think about in terms of like larger, complex interactions?


I think it’s more complex solving, as compared to the mere definition of a chain. And I'm gonna give you another example of another type of research that I'm doing that seems not connected, but I think it is. So I am working on a lot in feed safety. I'm working with this swine group in the animal science department. Because I came across this very problematic stereotype of salmonella that recently has been seen pretty often in United States at the retail level or production level. So in piece of pork meat, we had several outbreaks with these salmonella. And so I was reading several article and I came across a work that some professor from the vet school did on African swine fever, demonstrating that one of the way to turn off transmission of this virus is through feed, and I start researching about these salmonella serotype. And there are a lot of entities such in Canada and North Europe that did preliminary study. And they found a lot of the stereotype in our feed and feed meal. So I was fortunate enough to partner with this swine group at Kansas State and is almost four years there. We are researching the presence of the serotype from feed. Now we did the feed, we are investigating the farm. And they recently got a GFS a seed grant through the Global Food System Initiative, where we are gonna understand if we've lived pig, if they drink or they eat or they ingest somehow this pathogen if they keep it inside their body and then at slaughter, there is still the partition. And so like this pathogen can go at retail level. So what I'm trying to say is that, that I don't think it's a matter of water meat to anymore I think we are in a phase where the food system has become so complex that we cannot not consider it all the part of this chain or this system. So it's very fascinating for me also investigating what we call pre harvest beside harvest. And I think I came to this consideration because working at Ecolab that is a chemical company and see all the work that they do with the food industry and with their client on giving information and giving tools for cleaning and disinfection. I am pretty comfortable with saying that the industry as all the metal the potential to produce safe food. I think we under look some points that are coming before the production.


Right? Right. That's a wonderful example and exactly what I was getting at. And it's a great example not just because of your point of looking at a different point in the food system, but also because it required some interdisciplinary outreach and connection on your part that I would assume is absolutely vital. Now in tackling those complex interaction,


I we had, we had working with a historian, because that was the migration of these foodborne pathogen from Europe to United States until 15 years ago, this particular serotype of salmonella was never seen in the United States on log in. And so we are trying to understand if there was a change in the in how this one industry worked, that allow the transition the migration of these microorganisms from Europe to United States. And so we have a KPI in the history department that is helping with this research. So has been very interesting also for that.


Absolutely no, that is that is even more interdisciplinary than I realized. That's great. Thank you.


And even more complicated, because if it's coming from Europe, and then goes into another complete, I guess web if you want, or set of connections. So it's not not just finding the particular serotype here and tracing it down. How'd it go make it to the US to begin with. And then since it's gotten in the US, that's another set of problems. So it appears that it keeps the idea of mitigating the problem as one of the potential focuses of the research. Beyond just figuring out now it's here we have this problem. How do we get rid of it? How do we control it?


I love the fact that you're working with somebody in the history department. I know that you've heard my spiel before Valentina, but just the critical importance of bringing in various focused ideas on how to tackle big problems is so important. And sometimes we forget about the impact of what the humanities brings to some of these questions. I think that's wonderful.


Sometimes is difficult to make this connection. So the Global Food System Initiative, really gave me the possibility to stretch my mind a little bit and say, Okay, this is the occasion where I can try to truly do a multi or interdisciplinary project. So I contacted the professor from these departments.


Yeah, no, that's wonderful. You know, I'm curious, going back to the discussion that you provided a bit on the research you're doing in livestock processing facilities, where do you see the information you develop is going to be critically important. But I'm seeing that we are hopefully going to watch this COVID issue go away over the next year? Where do you see some of that information and work that you're developing now sit after this as this part of our lives is closed up? You know, once we get our hands around COVID? Are there going to be outcomes of that that will be impacting the industry long term and how they do the work in those facilities? Or is it something that will be shelved until the next time we have something like that happen?


So my hope is that what we produce is gonna be relevant for COVID-19, but also for how to better mitigate if we have another problem of this type. I think our approach is that since we are not we did not propose the development of new cleaning or disinfectant tool, we are going to work with what the industry is already using. And we did it on purpose because we know that sometimes the adoption of a new system becomes too difficult for the food industry. So we part we start with the advantage of proposing to the industry what they already know this step forward. The ease that we are gonna try to combine factor and parameter that sometimes been looking a separate way that can be pH or concentrate or temperature, and we are going to try to combine them and see and see a way to enhance the capability of these chemical compounds against COVID. Now, I think all our study will be applicable to other type of pathogen and viruses. Also, because unfortunately, we are seeing an increase of antimicrobial resistance. So, the fact that we are going to offer also results on the physiology of the virus and what is happening when the virus is treated with this compound can be useful if we see in a rise of salmonella, multi resistance pathogen in the poultry industry, understand and take the results that we are going to produce from this grant. So I do not see it only for COVID-19. I see it as the way to explore with the tool that we have now, but enhance and improve if something unexpected is gonna happen again, to make our food safe.


Is it possible that contamination by other microorganisms, salmonella, for example, work could actually create a micro environment that would facilitate the length of life of COVID 19?


So it's something that we cannot disclose, because I saw a lot of study where there is a symbiotic relationship between viruses and bacteria. And an example of that is not a virus, for example. But I think COVID is so new, that we do not have that knowledge yet, but definitely think that there is an interaction. Thank you.


Don't question makes me think of another that's much more simplistic, and it will but will show my lack of rudimentary knowledge and biology. But I was I'm struck by the fact that Valentina, you usually work with bacteria like listeria, E coli, salmonella, and now but I mean, as you as you referenced in some earlier discussion, as well as this project, regarding COVID, you're being brought in to think about viruses in the way that they're transmitting. And under what conditions is that? Is that a relatively easy jump for someone like yourself, who's usually working with different kinds of bacterial pathogens instead of viruses? Or do you just provide different kinds of expertise to the project? How does? How does that translation work?


Yeah, so I'm not a virologist, and bacteria and virus are completely different. So we made sure we had the virologist in the team. I think we got this grant, because we brought in a different perspective of how the food industry work, what they are using for clean sanitation, how food products are produced, what they need to do the in the operator and the employer in order to producing keep the environment and the products safe. So we brought in all this knowledge, that is definitely definitely applicable to virus. Now we needed the virology is because the mode of action and how to cultivate and how to enumerate and recover the virus is completely different as compared to bacteria. So I think is a good example of synergistic activity. And all of us bring a different perspective. Right?


No, I agree. And as I hear you talk about that synergy it, it just makes me think about how how interesting it is that the safety of the workers in these facilities is directly related to or connected to the safety of the food and the way that it's pretty I don't know, maybe it's, it's not that revolutionary of an idea and for food safety, like yourself, I'm sure it's not. But I don't think I would have automatically put those two kinds of risks together as as interacting and influencing one another.


Actually, the majority of foodborne illnesses that we have is because of hygiene, or poor hygiene of worker or wrong way to handle food. So they are very much related.


They very are connected. Right,

Does the neurologist that you're working with, Can you I guess the term would be carry a culture of, of COVID? Is there a way to keep it alive for an extended period of time outside a system that that has the cells that it would normally populate?


Yes, because we will, we are working on these trying to keep the virus alive for longer because our study is going to be over time at a different temperature. And we are going to understand the survivability of the virus for example, on Stainless steal at refrigerated temperature for one week. But we have been reading also that there is a group that was able to recover a COVID on a piece of meat to when this piece of meat was frozen for at least two weeks. So we do have some evidence that the virus can survive.


Yeah, it's ironic that you should be investigating it living longer, rather than shorter, even a good experimental reason.


Volunteer, I really look forward to hearing the results of that research, as I'm sure many people will be very interested, you know, in Kansas and around the world. But I haven't I have a completely different line of questioning for you. In the materials to prepare for today. We were given some information about some of your social media posts. And I have to say I had a lot of fun looking at your labs Twitter account. And I wonder what's going on with that spinach that you posted? Can you explain a little bit about the experimentation that's being done on the color of this spinach?


Yeah, so I need to say that all my graduate students and undergraduate students are helping me a lot to be active on social media. And after I'm going to explain you about the spinach, I want to tell you what I had my undergraduate student do for food, food micro but so this project of the spinach is funded by KDA. So is really to help increase the production of safe products in Kansas, a lot of time, especially in the last two years, I think all of you heard about outbreak related to lead to and leafy green. So we also know that consumer one grass organic, natural way to preserve their food, they don't like the idea of adding a lot of chemicals. This step of washing leafing leafy green spinach salad is key to prevent illnesses. The problem with washing products that are so delicate is that they lose color. They become mushy, they short term very much the shelf life. We have in the industry, a lot of chemical sanitizer that are very effective against E coli or salmonella, but they are so effective, that they kind of bleach or discolor the product and therefore cannot be used. So, what we are trying to do in this research is to test some natural compounds that are essential oil and encapsulate them in water solution in a motion and then in using them in water solution and understand if there is an effect against E coli and if the parameter of quality Keep such as color, we want to try to imitate the small producer of Kansas. This is why my student is working, relatively small batch. But since we need a lot of replication, then you saw all the picture of spinach laying down on the in the hood, right? Right. Yes. Yeah. So this plant is that of this peanut are inoculated with the pathogen. And then we tried the different antimicrobial intervention for different time and different concentration. And when we see that one particular treatment is effective than the other part of experiment is to double check, none of the quality parameters are compromised. 



And do you determine the color instrumentalist? Or do you go to a some kind of visual human assessment.


So we do both, we like to record our parameter with the cement with a calorimeter, I think is more objective. But we also take picture of your time of the product. And like when we see maybe mold, or some defects, that's also a visual quality parameter that we can use to assess the shelf life of the product. In collaboration, we will later we are able to measure respiration, antioxidant, a lot of a lot of parameters that contribute to the quality of produce.


So you didn't have to go out and establish what the quality characteristics for good versus poor spinach. Were you had those accessible to you?


Yes, yes. So there are established now we didn't need to go out and understand they're established. We did a similar work with berries. And in particular, we work with strawberries, and was very much the same. Apparently, there is a certain level of red, and that indicated the ripeness. And that's what is prepare by consumer. So is this done?


Add that color is labile to, to the whatever it's encountering and processing. So it will bleach?


Is yeah, the green, the green, the chlorophyll is very sensitive. So for example, all the last loose all this peanuts, or the colleagues of this tuber can be very much affected.


Okay. Valentina, I find that really fascinating and really hopeful on the low levels. I mean, you know, it's an experiment, I'm sure it will take time before you know exactly what works and what doesn't. But the idea that a natural oil might have the same kind of effectiveness but not caused the damage to the food. That seems really brilliant. I hope it works. But I'm also really impressed that KDA is funding this research that obviously could help local growers in Kansas but could also be applied, I would assume nationwide as well, correct?


Yes. And I think this is another example of my research, that is multidisciplinary, because my expertise is in food microbiology and safety. So I know how to control count characterize pathogen, but I am working with a chemist that knows how to encapsulate essential oil and make a motion and deliver these, these oil. I should say that these are ready the second proposal that KDA found us the first one was on a novelty packaging material. And I think Katie in the state of Kansas as shown a lot of interests and being open minded in trying to help these the the products grower and understand that we the products grown in Kansas should also start reaching outside Kansas so not produced just to say satisfy the Kansan, but also start to expand their businesses.




I had an interesting discussion with a with another researcher just yesterday, actually, that some of this, some of this discussion worked into it and in developing more potential for work in the, in the rural parts of Kansas. And a lot of it did focus back on smaller farmers being able to produce produce specialty crops. As with the the commodity crops, that really does kind of push people out, as the farms get larger, and the commodities take over more space, they're less people that are living in these areas, and in the idea of trying to populate and grow those regions. The idea of the smaller farmers and these specialty crops has been, I think, coming more to the forefront with KDA.


I agree, this is why we were trying to offer them a solution for transportation or extension of shelf life. Because as you, as you say, Kansas is big. And there are some areas that are rural, we need a lot of time to reach those areas. So I think the point where we can now help and improve is transportation and storage.


Yeah, I've got a couple of questions that aren't associated with one another at all. But one of them, I'll go back to your social media discussion that we had. And I thought it was interesting that you brought that up, Colene, because that was one of the questions that I had here. But what I'd like to know is, you clearly have a good handle on how to get information out. And man, it's fun. And it's interesting. Have you seen feedback on how impactful that is? Do you have a good feel for how well that's being utilized or looked at?


I don't think so. I mean, every year, or every semester, I'm growing my followers, and I'm getting more interest among K State students. So I know that I mean, actually, I know that, for example, we have been engaging in a lot of students from biology that do microbiology as a major, so I can kind of measure my impact at university level. But I wouldn't be able to measure in a more broad way. But what we have been doing is that we have been presenting all the activity that I put in social media, and I use with within the classroom, at the International annual meeting over food safety and microbiology. So that one was a broader way to impact colleague and students.


So at this point, would it be safe to say that the directionality of your interaction with the people out there that might be the ultimate end users of this knowledge? It is pretty much one directional at this point, they're not coming back to you. And asking questions or the like.


No, we are not there yet. I will keep going and see if I can get there.


Well, Valentina as the comms scholar in the room, I have to come to your defense and say that, you know, different, different communicators have different audiences. And it's, it seems pretty clear to me that by looking at your Twitter feed, your audience is clearly students and potential science students at Kansas State and beyond. I mean, that I get from your Twitter feed is that food safety research is fun. And I don't know if you could have a more important message for bringing new and diverse students into science and food safety research. I mean, I just think it's outstanding. And, you know, sure, we want the great information that you're learning to get out to Public that will use it. But I think that there's another way to think about the effectiveness of your communication, and that's in bringing a new generation of people into food safety research. 


That's very true.


Yeah, thank you for this perspective.


It's pretty clear that your students have fun. I wonder, you know, what are you doing that makes it so fun for your students? Do you attribute that to sort of like your own enjoyment in the research or did you have a colleague or a past faculty or a past mentor who sort of encouraged you to think about approaching your lab and your interactions with students in a particular way.


I think is both, I think that definitely I am passionate. And because during my training, I felt this passion from my advisor. And that's what led me to become a professor, I definitely want to give the same to my students. So when I communicate or when I'm explaining concept, I'm always trying to making engaging or trying to relate them to real life for daily routine. I'm I also know because I work in the lab a lot that if you do not have fun, you, you are not productive. Not too much fun, but just a little bit of fun. So I think a relax and nice environment is, is key to good productivity. I'm also and this is what I did during while I'm teaching, I also know that sitting and listening for 15 minutes to the instructor, sometimes is difficult. So I add some friend in the area of food safety and microbiology that are also professor in other university that are very creative. And this person play the ukulele and telling the study of bacteria with this ukulele. So now I play piano, but I cannot bring my piano in the class or I don't want I don't feel like I can engage with singing. So I have been reading about some publication and they were saying that, okay, you are not a musician, you are not a singer, but to try to engage them with one of your other skills. And so when I was in high school, and even in elementary school, I was acting. And so that's kind of what I make them do. Sometimes we try to be the bacteria that are injured, or stressed. Or some other time, I make them write a poem. And then they needed to tell them allow and one of them even did the rap on Twitter, there are a lot of playable games, because I think for kind of, everybody's interesting to be a detective. So I'm making them detect the bacteria that made a certain person sick, or the food that is potluck made time people ill. So I'm trying to, to make it a little bit different. Because I know that if I do present them all the time, the 15 minutes lecture, I might lose them on the way I do have a lot of 15 minutes lecture, but then I'm trying to give them a break with these activities.


Back in the gym, dark past when I was in graduate school, a fellow graduate students in the same lab, wrote an anthem to our particular discipline to green science called Green scientists. And it got so popular that it was actually sung in a national meeting.


I remember that clearly.


Yes, yes. But you have to be willing to put yourself out there. You can't hide behind the podium.


But Valentina to that, I mean, in in in an encapsulated way, that's that's the true dimension of interdisciplinary and you're, when you're talking about writing poems, I'm thinking about last year, to try and pull the humanities and the understanding of some of that thing into global food systems. On World Food Day, we had a poetry contest. And I'm thinking, you know, most of the people that were that that got involved in that were of the English department of the humanities areas. Wouldn't it be just great to pull in some of the folks that you have in it and then maybe team them up with somebody out of the English department and have them work together on coming up with something that's interesting and fun.


That would be fun.


Valentina, I have to say that you give me a lot to think about as I prepare for the next semester. I mean, John's got a great point, you know, you can't be afraid to put yourself out there. But I do think a lot of faculty members, they hesitate to try to innovate in the classroom, because they don't see it as their strength. But their mentor gave you a great lesson. Think about other things other than being a scientist or being a professor that you do, and use those to encourage different ways of learning and thinking, I think that's really inspirational. Thanks for that. Yeah.


No, I don't think so I just wanted to make sure that the message that comes out is that I am passionate on my work, because I had great advisor and teacher, that gave me the desire to give the same passion to the student, and that all the work that I do, even if it's in my contribution is in food, microbiology, I'm having a broader impact, because I'm working with different people. And my research is multidisciplinary, because I'm convinced that the food system is complex, and every lead player is important to overseeing look at the problem.


Very good. You're singing my song out there, Valentina.


I've been learning stuff left and right here. This is great sad, clicky.


But you make me want to be a food scientist. Thank you. So find future scientists to send to you keep doing great work.


Thank you so much. All right.

Well, thank you all for your time today. And Valentina, thank you so much for coming on. I think this was just a fun discussion and all of us learned so many things, and not all things that we expected to be hearing today. So this was this was great. Thank you. Very true.


Thank you again for the invitation.


Everybody have a wonderful, wonderful holiday and hopefully get a little rest over the break.


Happy holidays. Goodbye, everyone. Holidays. Bye bye. Bye.


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Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.