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Dr. Jennifer Quinlan: Focus on Major Disparities in Food Safety

Disparities in the health of Americans have gained attention in recent years, and CDC cites substandard care and inadequate access to care as prime reasons. Dr. Jennifer Quinlan is determined to help eliminate a third significant factor.

female researcher in lab“Recent published data back up what we’ve found in our lab: populations of low socioeconomic and minority background experience some food-borne infections at rates greater than we see in Caucasian and high socioeconomic populations. What we don’t know is why. Where in the farm-to-fork continuum do these groups experience higher risks?” Dr. Quinlan holds up a magazine, open to a full-page ad touting yet another fat laden sandwich from a fast-food outlet.

“There’s a wealth of data indicating that minority and low socioeconomic populations have poorer access to fresh and healthy foods. We’ve documented grossly disparate distribution of supermarkets between wealthier and poorer neighborhoods. But is the food available in poorer neighborhoods also less safe? We don’t know.

“In our current study [funded by the US Department of Agriculture] we’re visiting markets catering to populations of different demographics in Philadelphia. We’re recording data including sanitation status and temperatures in the stores, as well as what kinds of foods they sell. We test the food for a range of microbial contaminants, some that are indicators of food quality and potential spoilage, and some that are direct indicators of food safety— pathogens.”

Dr. Quinlan and her team are conducting focus groups and surveys of groups from several different demographics.

USDA has funded another project just underway. “We’re looking at the possibility that some populations experience greater risks for food-borne illness because of handling after the sale. Different demographics often mean different diets, and some populations may have varying levels of knowledge about safe handling practices.”

Dr. Quinlan and her team are conducting focus groups and surveys of groups from several different demographics, inquiring about the safe handling of raw poultry and egg products. “These are frequently contaminated with the two main causes of food-borne illness, Salmonella and Campylobacter.”

The study will identify any gaps in knowledge or risky behaviors that consumers may practice regularly. And with Co-PIs at Drexel’s Department of Culture and Communication and at New Mexico State University, they will develop culturally appropriate safe food handling messages and materials. “Then we’ll get these messages out to communities in Philadelphia and assess their effectiveness.

“I’m also interested in basic biology: how does Campylobacter [a major cause of diarrheal illness in both developed and developing countries] survive in food and water systems? It’s a fastidious organism, yet it manages to thrive and cause a great deal of illness. We don’t have sufficient knowledge of its virulence mechanisms.”