Small businesses, underserved communities get assist from Extension food safety expert
Pratik Banerjee is an associate professor of food safety in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. His research and teaching focus on understanding the transmission of foodborne pathogens and the risks they pose to consumers. As a food safety expert, his goal is to make a real impact in the evolving climate of food safety regulations and guidelines.
When he joined University of Illinois Extension in June 2020 as a faculty specialist in food safety, he found an opportunity to translate his academic work into public service.
"I realized that interactions with a wide range of individuals, from homemakers and small-scale farmers to large-scale commercial food processors, are critical," Banerjee said. "Likewise, science-based support to different stakeholders of the food system is essential to ensure the safety of food commodities."
One of Banerjee's areas of focus is the interplay between food safety and food security. A 2010 study published jointly by Policy Link and the Food Trust found that many low-income communities, communities of color, and sparsely populated rural areas do not have sufficient opportunities to buy healthy, affordable food.
As a result of these disparities, people in low-income communities are more likely to experience health issues linked to diet, such as obesity and diabetes.
A handful of studies have also shown that these populations appear to be at a disproportionately higher risk of contracting foodborne illness due to a lack of awareness about the safe handling and preparation of potentially hazardous and perishable food.
Historically, low-income neighborhoods are served by smaller retailers and producers, who face the same socioeconomic disparities as their customers. "Offering science-based, practical solutions to small and medium food retailers, producers, and consumers is a priority of my Extension program," Banerjee said.
He found that many of the food safety educational resources that were available seemed to target larger operations. The specific needs of small or non-traditional retailers were not being adequately addressed.
Many small and medium-scale food retailers and producers are unaware of food safety laws, or they feel uncertain about whether the regulations apply to them. These businesses may not have adequate resources to allocate to food safety practices.
Through his Extension program, Banerjee began reaching out to those underserved stakeholders and offering education and technical assistance that could change their food safety practices and culture, allowing them to attain a higher sanitary standard without requiring significant financial investments.
Then, in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic compounded all of these challenges exponentially and made outreach and assistance for small businesses even more critical.
"The pandemic forced several small food retailers out of business (and for good), leaving food insecure communities in a more challenging situation," Banerjee said.
During the pandemic, food producers and retailers have undertaken several additional measures recommended by federal, state, and local public health agencies.
New procedures for comprehensive facility cleaning and sanitization and employee health monitoring, as well as policies on masks and social distancing for both employees and customers are just some of the critical measures that have been implemented since 2020.
While these policies apply to all food producers and retailers, it is often more challenging for smaller, resource-limited businesses to implement them. Therefore, the additional burdens created by COVID-19, on both finances and personnel, are often felt more greatly by small retailers and producers.
Small businesses continue to face pandemic-related challenges, including market volatility, supply chain-related issues, and in some cases, a shortage of available workers.
Working with Extension's local food systems and small farms team, as well as community and economic development, Banerjee is helping to develop food safety outreach materials, which are mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act.
The goal is to create simple and practical content specifically for small to mid-size farms that will reach a diverse population, many of whom do not speak English. His outreach, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, focuses on underserved populations, such as new farmers, women, specialty crop growers, Amish and Mennonite producers, Burmese and Bhutanese refugees, and urban farmers.
"The entirety of the national food safety initiative cannot be ensured without addressing the educational needs of small, specialized audiences who are an integral part of our food system," said Banerjee. "Through my Extension program, I can translate scientific research to different communities who are traditionally left out of the nation's food safety initiatives."
Making a positive change in food safety practices that could someday result in improved public health is what drives Banerjee's passion for this work. His role as an Extension specialist continues to offer unique opportunities to translate his research and teaching into public service with significant and lasting impacts on the community.