Extension Foods Specialist Val Hillers, it all started two days
before Christmas. She and her husband Joe, were spending the holiday
on Whidbey Island where they were in the midst of remodeling their
future retirement home.
had 15 minutes before neighbors were coming for dessert," she recalled.
"We hadn't had the radio on all day." She checked her e-mail and
found a message advising all Extension workers that a case of BSE,
or Mad Cow disease, had been confirmed in Washington state.
later a neighbor called with the same news. "That's when I called
the Information Department and found that people were trying to
get in touch with me."
followed was a week of mayhem. She answered questions on an hour-long
talk show on KUOW, the Seattle public radio station. She and Joe,
professor emeritus of animal sciences at WSU, both fielded questions
from a Seattle Times reporter who wanted to know about dairy production
in Seattle sent a news crew to interview her in Coupeville. The
interview was broadcast in Seattle and later on KING-TV's sister
stations across the state as well as on the Northwest Cable News
She also fielded calls from MSNBC and newspapers all across the
state and responded to e-mails from concerned consumers. Her message
remained calm and consistent: "The incident of possible Mad Cow
Disease or BSE in Washington state is isolated. It was detected
early and the risk to humans is extremely low."
the story broke, Hillers had no access to her office files and slow
internet access through a dial-up modem. Since the Hillers' phone
was blocked for long distance service, she couldn't return calls
without a calling card. "The whole thing was pretty crazy and it
stayed crazy the whole time I was there," she said.
Cow is just the latest of a number of high-profile food safety issues
Hillers has been involved with during a 20-year career as a food
safety educator at WSU. In 1988, it was Alar and in 1993, E. coli.
An outbreak of Salmonella in unpasteurized cheese in the Yakima
Valley in the mid-90's prompted a multi-agency intervention.
served as co-leader of a team that responded to the outbreak of
Salmonella food poisoning in queso fresco, a soft white Mexican
cheese usually produced from raw, unpasteurized milk. The homemade
cheese is a traditional food in the Hispanic community.
team recruited respected women (abuelas) in the Hispanic community
to educate the community about the risks of consuming raw milk products
and teach a modified recipe for the cheese using pasteurized milk.
The new recipe was created in WSU's food science and human nutrition
department. Incidents of Salmonella dropped dramatically, from nearly
90 in 1996‚97 at the height of the outbreak to just 2 by 1999. While
she is comfortable dealing with the media about issues in the news,
her preference is to be an educator focusing on the things people
can do every day to prevent foodborne illness. "What I have found
through the years is that media is not a good tool because it's
not news to tell people to wash their hands," she said. "For me
that's the biggest challenge I've got. How do I reach people with
the ordinary messages about food safety, and yet, these are important
things they can do to improve their health."
1990, when former Extension Director Fred Poston bought satellite
dishes for the state's county extension offices, he asked Hillers
to produce extension's first satellite video conference "How Safe
is Our Food?"
following year, the team of food safety educators who created that
broadcast organized the first annual "Food Safety Farm to Table
Conference." It was designed to keep food educators up-to-date on
potential food safety issues, sometimes long before they ever appeared
on the public's radar screen.
|Val Hillers and food science masters degree student Zena Edwards, along with doctoral student Masami Takeuchi (not pictured) authored the Now You're Cooking...Using a Food Thermometer training kit.
loosely organized team includes faculty from both WSU and the University
of Idaho. "The only thing that ties us together is planning for
this conference," Hillers said. "Nobody tells us to do this conference.
We just do it."
event is funded strictly by registration fees. Over the years, the
organizers have brought in speakers from all across the U.S., the
United Kingdom, and Norway.
Currently she is working on a multi-state integrated research, education,
and extension effort to encourage more people to use food thermometers,
especially when cooking hamburgers. (See "The Thermometer Project.")
also is working with colleagues at Ohio State and Colorado State
on a USDA-funded project to design and evaluate food safety materials
for people in audiences that are high-risk for foodborne illness,
including people who are HIV positive, have had organ or bone marrow
transplants, who are pregnant, elderly, or very young.
part of this grant we did a graduate-level class for students
the three universities on WECN, the Washington Educational Conferencing
Network. The system of hardware and software enables internet
her work make her paranoid about the safety of the food she eats?
try not to be stupid about what I eat, but likewise I know that
life is not risk- free. At some point, something will affect me.
I guess I try to keep things in perspective."