Food safety problem-solving method to be explored with grant

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A multi-institutional project is under way to teach a new framework for problem solving to veterinary students involved with food safety and food animal medicine.

Dr. Hurd, Iowa State University
Dr. H. Scott Hurd

The Department of Agriculture recently awarded a $308,667 Higher Education Challenge Grant to Dr. H. Scott Hurd, an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Diagnostic and Production Animal Medicine at Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

His project, "Food Systems Veterinary Medicine for the 21st Century," will be a collaboration among the Iowa State veterinary college, Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and the University of Arkansas Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food & Life Sciences. Faculty from these institutions will incorporate a new framework—systems thinking—into topics they're already teaching.

Systems thinking is an approach to problem solving that views problems as parts of an overall system. It is based on the belief that the components of a system can be understood best in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, and how things influence one another within a whole.

"You express the phenomenon you're experiencing in terms of inputs and outputs and processes. Then everyone gets a framework on which they can look at the model together," Dr. Hurd said. "The systems approach can become a new language for problem solving."

The topic became relevant to Dr. Hurd during his time as deputy undersecretary of food safety at the USDA. He implemented the largest recall of meat in U.S. history in early 2008 after undercover video surfaced showing abuse of nonambulatory cattle at a California slaughter plant (see JAVMA, March 15, 2008). During that incident, he found veterinarians and the veterinary colleges had a tremendous need for a new skill set.

The timing for implementing this teaching method, however, hadn't worked out until this past fall when the USDA put out a request for curriculum development grants, one of which was targeted toward veterinary medicine.

Higher Education Challenge grants are administered through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant program encourages innovative teaching enhancement projects with the potential for regional or national impact and for serving as models for other institutions. While research and extension activities may be included in a funded project, the primary focus must be to improve teaching within a degree-granting program.

With this grant, faculty at the three schools will develop case studies that will convey systems thinking and the basics of diseases. The institutions were chosen for their expertise in poultry (Arkansas), beef cattle (K-State), and swine (Iowa State) medicine. These three schools form the Food Safety Consortium, which has been successfully researching food safety topics for more than 20 years.

"The goal is to put together packages that are usable to other schools for teaching food animal medicine and public health topics," Dr. Hurd said.

The World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization will be working on the three-year project as well.

It will start this spring with faculty conducting baseline evaluations of the students to ascertain their existing knowledge. Classes will begin in the fall and will expand as warranted.