Shannon Coleman is a new assistant professor in food science and human nutrition who specializes in food safety. Her research includes identifying foodborne pathogens that could cause risk for fresh produce such as hydroponic tomatoes. Photo by Blake Lanser.

New Iowa State professor to help small farmers with food safety

Shannon Coleman’s interest in science stems from the first grade, when she propagated a pineapple plant. She still recalls cutting off the top of the pineapple, burying it in soil, and watching the leaves grow — just as she observed horticulture students do years later in college.

“That was my first science fair project,” she said. “Ever since that pineapple plant project, I have been a scientist.”

Coleman is a food microbiologist who’s a new assistant professor in food science and human nutrition and a Human Sciences Extension and Outreach specialist at Iowa State University.

Her job will take Iowa State’s longstanding, interdepartmental efforts in food safety and consumer food protection, and extend that research-based education to small farmers and food entrepreneurs. She wants to make sure that value-added, Iowa-grown foods purchased at farmers’ markets are safe to eat.

“I’ll be focusing mainly on food entrepreneurs who operate small food companies, small farmers, as well as home-based food businesses — helping them develop food safety protocols, making sure that the product that they’re producing for the farmers’ market is safe,” she said.

Direct contact for farmers and food entrepreneurs

The use of research-based practices in food safety is critically important because about one out of every six Americans, or 48 million people, get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coleman will help Iowa farmers to address food safety aspects of local and regional food systems related to small-scale production and processing, to add value to Iowa-grown foods.  shannon-coleman-content

“I will be a direct contact to speak with about producing their product,” she said. “I will give them advice as well as develop programming about food safety, and consumer behavior in relation to food safety and farm-to-table produce safety.”

Coleman’s hire was part of Iowa State’s Presidential High Impact Hires Initiative to support targeted faculty hiring in areas of strategic importance. She’ll provide technical outreach and research-based evidence for practices in new entrepreneurial efforts, especially by those in underserved populations.

“For example, I will develop programming for non-English speakers on food safety,” she said. “I will also incorporate more videos about food safety that could reach a broad audience.”

Food safety testing on tomatoes, cantaloupe

Coleman is a native of Alabama who recently received her doctorate from Colorado State University in animal sciences with a concentration in food microbiology and safety.

Her research included identifying foodborne pathogens that could cause risk for fresh produce. She recently collaborated with horticulture students, testing hydroponic tomatoes for the presence of salmonella.

shannon-coleman-content2“We were evaluating the irrigation water source and probability of salmonella contamination,” she said. “We observed contamination in the root system and low levels of contamination on the tomato fruit.”

Coleman also worked with a cantaloupe grower as part of her food safety research in Colorado. Her research came after the 2011 listeria outbreak that stemmed from a Colorado cantaloupe farm, killing 33 people and reviving a national conversation on food safety.

“We did one study involving chlorine dioxide washing methods for cantaloupes during processing and another with at-home washing methods,” she said. “With the at-home methods, we saw that using boiling water or just rinsing with water itself were effective in reducing natural microbial counts on the surface of cantaloupes.”

Focus on regional food systems

Iowa State’s departments of food science and human nutrition; apparel, events, and hospitality management; and ISU Extension and Outreach have a longstanding collaboration around food safety and consumer food protection.

Coleman will work to enhance those efforts in food safety, and will also develop curriculum to teach undergraduates about community food systems. She’ll work with students on multidisciplinary research initiatives associated with diversifying Iowa’s food system.

“We are very excited that Shannon has joined our faculty,” said Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of food science and human nutrition. “Her background and expertise will aid ISU in helping local food producers ensure the safety of their products through her outreach and teaching roles. Shannon is an experienced researcher who will add strength to our mission of advancing the field of food microbiology and food safety.”

Coleman has been a teaching assistant, lab instructor, and guest lecturer at Alabama A&M and Colorado State University. She’s lectured about food production from farm to table, as well as about food safety. She also gained experience in cereal science through an internship at the Kellogg Company.

She loves working with children and has presented food safety materials to underrepresented high school and middle school students.

“The most popular activity involved identifying ATP production from the dirtiest spots around the farm,” she said. “They also enjoyed other fun activities such as playing Jeopardy, which peaked their interest in food safety as well. I want to use my platform to work with young kids, introducing them to science to cultivate their interest, just as my interest was cultivated by my mentors.”