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Innovation Profile: Dr. Angela Shaw

Innovation | 05/24/2021

Dr. Angela Shaw

Innovative Approaches Lead to Safer Food Supply

Dr. Angela Shaw

Dr. Angela Shaw is bringing her passion for food and cooking together with her love for microbiology to help create a safer and healthier food supply in Iowa and beyond.

Dr. Shaw is an associate professor of food science and human nutrition and Extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Iowa State University and also co-leads a USDA grant-funded team of produce safety extension specialists across the Midwest known as the North Central Region Center (NCR) for Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Training, Extension, and Technical Assistance. The NCR is one of four regional centers in the United States that organize Produce Safety Alliance Grower Training for produce growers as part of FSMA.

About 46 percent of foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. are linked to fruit, vegetable or nuts, so the team’s focus is on helping Midwest fruit and vegetable growers and food processors improve practices to prevent outbreaks. Reducing food illness risk is even more important as Americans are encouraged to eat more fruits, vegetables and nuts in their diets, and interest in local food production and sales continues to grow quickly.

The team provides training and outreach to about 1,000 growers and processors each year in Iowa, with FSMA trainings reaching about 20,000 growers and processors nationwide.

“We’re focused on taking a practical approach and emphasizing behavioral change to make food safety improvements,” she said. “Six years into the program, we’re seeing significant changes with a lot of the recommended practices being adopted at the farm level.”

Trainings and follow-up communications are often focused on reminders of simple steps that can make a significant difference, including frequent handwashing, how to properly clean and sanitize food contact surfaces and bins, and training employees in a more systematic way.

“There has definitely been a shift in how we work with farmers and processors. Fifteen years ago we focused one the ‘one way’ to do things and it could be very overwhelming,” she said. “The practical approach of making one change at a time and emphasizing behavioral change is making a positive difference and is much more approachable.”

In addition to work with the NCR, Dr. Shaw has focused her research on how grocery stores can work with local produce growers to ensure that food safety practices are being met at the farm level.

“We know that many grocery stores and retailers want to buy local, but also don’t have the expertise in working directly with farmers,” she said. “The Iowa State University Produce Safety Team has put together checklists for grocery stores to outline their expectations for farmers to help them develop programs that are transparent, research-based and can reward farmers who are doing the right things.”

Dr. Shaw grew up outside of Seattle and Chicago, but her career has come full circle at Iowa State University.

“As an undergraduate, I came to Iowa State thinking I was going to be a veterinarian, but I soon learned that wasn’t my passion. I fell back on my love of cooking and food, which drove me to product development and discovering how microbiology impacts all food products and food safety,” she said.

She earned undergraduate and masters degrees at Iowa State University, then went to Texas Tech University to earn a PhD in food science with an emphasis in food microbiology. She had the opportunity to return to Iowa State in 2011.

Coming back to Iowa State provided Dr. Shaw with the opportunity to take her research out to the field, as well as collaborate with industry-leading researchers and extension professionals.

“My department is Food Sciences and Human Nutrition, so my colleagues aren’t just food scientists. We have one of the best dietetics program in the U.S., so I’m also surrounded by nutritionists. Together we work to make sure we have the most wholesome and nutritious food supply,” she said. She also noted the opportunity to engage across the state through Iowa’s strong extension program in all 99 counties.

The collaborative nature of extension programs as well as Iowa state regulators and government officials is a strong foundation to both improve food safety for consumers and improve productivity and profitability of the state’s farmers.

“We have done a number of trainings to help farmers safely grow their operations, expanding from selling at farmers markets to taking their business to the next level by selling at retailers like Whole Foods or grocery chains,” said Dr. Shaw. “In Iowa, farmers benefit from the collaborative nature of their government; they truly want to help and support farmers responsibly take their operation to the next level, including making sure that extension and other resources are there to help.”

She was recognized with the Dean Lee R. Kolmer Award for Excellence in Applied Research in 2020 that honors CALS faculty or staff who have made significant contributions to improving the welfare of Iowans through research.

“Iowans should feel really good about the fruit and vegetables that are grown here in the state. Farmers are eager to learn more and are constantly reaching out for more resources to get better,” she said. “Food processors and retailers are also working very hard to do everything right.”