The idea of developing an interdisciplinary center to enhance safe food production from farm to fork has gained new significance since the events of Sept. 11.

That's the view of Will Hueston, DVM, first director of the new Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota.

Hueston is known as an international expert in Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease. He was previously professor and associate dean for Veterinary Medicine at the University of Maryland.

“I have always been interested in expanding the role of veterinary medicine as it relates to food safety, and the University of Minnesota is well-equipped and committed to this task,” he says.

The center combines efforts with producers, agribusiness and agriculture and public health agencies to combat bioterrorism and threats to animal health.

“We are one of a handful of universities in the nation where there is a veterinary college, school of public health, full medical community and an agricultural school on the same basic campus — supporting an interdisciplinary approach addressing the entire food system,” says Hueston.

New Urgency

With the events surrounding the World Trade Center and the anthrax scare, Hueston says he hit the ground running when he assumed his new position on Oct. 1. He and his team launched a new concept dubbed “Just In Time Training.” The first educational program aired Oct. 10 on bio-terrorism and the anthrax threat to Minnesota. Fueling the fear was a northwest Minnesota anthrax outbreak in cattle in early fall.

“We target our audience to convey the key information, delivered in a timely and succinct manner,” says Hueston.

The training has been delivered throughout the state via videoconferencing. Biosecurity has been a recurring theme.

“Biosecurity has gotten some additional attention this past year with the foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks,” remarks Hueston. “But it is still a critical management strategy with lots of gaps and vulnerability in dealing with domestic and foreign animal diseases alike.”

Addressing those issues in a timely fashion can help deal with that vulnerability. “As with anthrax, a lot of these issues about which we have concern are also animal diseases,” he states.

Another emerging animal disease concern on Minnesota's doorstep, the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus, affects wild birds, horses and people. It's only a matter of time before the state becomes the next victim of this latest threat, stresses Hueston.

When this virus or any other serious animal health/food safety crisis has been confirmed, the goal is to get the word out within five days.

That may be done in the form of a videoconference training program and/or fact sheets and other educational materials, says Hueston.

The training program deals with risk communication, one of four major focus areas of the new center, he notes.

A second focus area is quality assurance and certification programs. This area helps identify best management practices that contribute to a safer food supply, observes Hueston.

A third area is enhancing educational opportunities related to food safety and biosecurity. In this regard, Hueston says the university will be kicking off a group of programs this spring that will allow individuals to obtain a masters in health degree.

“It is really a professional degree in food safety and biosecurity,” he explains. Mid-career professionals such as veterinarians or extension educators can achieve this public health degree in 13 months while working full-time. The courses will be offered in a combination of training sessions in the Twin Cities, taken together with a group of courses offered on-line.

The fourth area of emphasis is applied research. It relates to identifying the top few food-borne illness issues such as salmonella or antibiotic resistance, then trying to improve the health of Minnesotans and the nation.

For more information on the center, log on to www.cvm.umn.edu/center. Double-click on the center name to locate a variety of information.

Hueston can be reached at (612) 624-6772; fax (612) 625-6241 or e-mail huest001@umn.edu.