May 27, 2021
Food scientist tackles food safety in the lab, field and classroom
By Fred Miller
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- New faculty member conducts research, extension and teaching programs
- Focus is on safety for low-moisture food products
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Jennifer Acuff is making a three-tiered effort to ensure food gets from the farm to the kitchen without contamination.
Acuff joined the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. She is an assistant professor of food microbiology and safety in the department of food science.
She has appointments as an assistant professor in the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture’s research and extension arms, and a teaching appointment in Bumpers College.
“My appointments in research, extension and teaching are very close in terms of percentage,” Acuff said. “It is meant to create a very integrated program”
“Food science is an ideal place for such similar appointments,” said Jeyam Subbiah, food science department head. “We want results from Dr. Acuff’s research to be immediately applied to the food industry through her extension efforts, and also she teaches students about this very important area.
“She is an excellent teacher,” Subbiah said, “and has been very flexible, coming on board in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and having to change everything we do in order to adapt. She pulled it off exceptionally well, to manage her classes and build a research program.”
Acuff earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Abilene Christian University and a master’s degree in food microbiology from Kansas State University. She earned a doctorate in food safety and microbiology from Virginia Tech University in 2020.
She has research experience in food safety, working in areas related to beef, ready-to-eat foods and low-water activity foods.
Acuff’s research primarily focuses on intervention technologies designed to reduce pathogen contamination in post-harvest foods. She investigates strategies to improve fresh and processed food safety and protect products from microbial contamination.
She is currently focusing on microbial contamination in low-moisture food products, including such things as spices, nuts, dry fruits and powders.
“Low-moisture foods are often overlooked,” Acuff said. “Low-moisture environments don’t promote bacterial growth. It’s rare, but it does happen.” She cited two cases — one in peanut butter and another in dry infant formula — that led to recalls and production changes.
“It’s a huge deal to make sure dry foods are safe,” she said.
“The Food and Drug Administration says all foods are susceptible to contamination,” Acuff said. “So, we are investigating what we can do to reduce the risks and how to prove it works.”
Acuff is currently working on an industry grant-funded project to investigate Salmonella contamination in dairy powders. “I’m looking for routes of contamination and how long the bacterial pathogen survives. Also, what solutions are available to destroy the bacteria.”
She is also searching for effective surrogate bacteria. These would be harmless bacteria that otherwise behave like Salmonella. They could be introduced into a company’s production line to verify that detection and inactivation systems are working properly.
Acuff wants to take her research results directly to the food industry, she said. Also, she will be able to help companies find potential problems in their food processing systems and take successful action to make their products safe.
“My extension work will focus on consultation and in-plant research to help companies identify, mitigate and document risks of contamination,” she said.
“We’re doing applied research that can help the food industries,” Acuff said, “and also to engage our local communities on food safety issues.”
Acuff’s classroom will help prepare students for food safety jobs in the food industry and prepare the next generation of food safety scientists. She is already teaching food microbiology lectures and related labs.
“There are many students from other academic programs besides food science,” Acuff said. “They come from pre-health programs and other disciplines for which food safety education is important.”
Acuff is also developing an online master’s degree program in food safety.
“The aim is to help people be better educated about food safety, at home as well as in the industry,” she said.
To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uark.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch.
To learn about extension program in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @UAEX_edu.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
Media Contact: Fred Miller
U of A System Division of Agriculture
Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station