Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 3, Page 7
Spring 1994
On Research
Food scientist unravels riddle of food-borne sickness

     In between teaching and research, Kathryn Kotula, a professional
food detective in the College of Agricultural Sciences, takes time to
solve mysteries.
     An assistant professor in the departments of Food Science and
Animal Science and Agricultural Biochemistry, Kotula pieces together
the complex puzzles of food-borne illness outbreaks. As an adviser and
expert witness, she has rendered her professional opinion in about
half a dozen legal cases in the last three years.
     As an expert in microbiological food safety, Kotula does her
sleuthing for the food product segment of the agricultural industry.
In one case, 187 people were stricken with salmonellosis after eating
at a diner. The diner's owner attempted to sue its egg supplier,
asserting that the salmonella originated on the farm.
     Kotula pored over inspection reports and affidavits before
reaching an opinion. As a food scientist, she recognized that eggs,
meat and other poultry products may contain Salmonella enteritis.
However, she also knew that this bacteria is killed by heat and easily
inhibited by cold storage and proper sanitation.
     Her solution to the mystery of the salmonella outbreak? Kotula
found no evidence proving a link between the outbreak and the egg
farm. She noted that the diner's employees had handled the food
improperly and that the diner had been cited for numerous health
violations before and after the outbreak.
     Kotula says food sleuthing helps her to become a better teacher.
     "Through my research for legal cases, I stay up-to-date on
exactly what is happening out there with salmonellosis outbreaks,"
says Kotula. "I bring this data back to my classes and share what I've
     For example, before Thanksgiving each year, she presents a class
on food safety. Upon their return to campus after the holiday,
Kotula's students report on ways they helped modify family cooking
practices. Some students reminded harried cooks not to reuse a cutting
board after cutting up raw poultry until the board was cleaned
thoroughly. Others stressed the importance of proper thawing
techniques, pointing out that meat should not be thawed on the kitchen
counter. And, still others urged family cooks to refrigerate or freeze
leftovers promptly, before bacteria can multiply.
     "The vast majority of food-borne illness outbreaks aren't traced
to the food producers, but to improper food storage and preparation,"
Kotula says. "Consumers must take responsibility for their own food
safety by keeping hot foods hot, cold foods cold and everything,
including hands and utensils, clean."
                                         -Doris Crowley, Delaware '58M