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Ohio State project aims to mitigate food safety risks in Ethiopia

Global health project supported by $3.39 million grant

Foodborne illnesses are critical global health problems, resulting in an estimated 600 million illnesses annually. Low- and middle-income countries bear most of the burden, largely due to poor food handling practices, weak regulatory systems and inadequate food safety laws.

Barbara Kowalcyk, an assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at The Ohio State University, wants nothing more than to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. She hopes her research study funded by a $3.39 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom (DFID) will provide important information that can be used to help improve food safety and enhance nutrition in low- to middle-income countries.

Over the next four years, the grant will be used to develop and implement a risk-based framework for food safety management and resource allocation with the goal of reducing foodborne illnesses and deaths and increasing equitable consumption of a safe, affordable and nutritious diet.

“Foodborne diseases are a significant public health issue,” Kowalcyk said. “And we cannot secure good nutrition without food safety. There is a lot of opportunity to make a significant impact in Ethiopia. I hope our work translates into fewer illnesses, less burden and healthier lives.”

Barbara Kowalcyks son Kevin died at age 2 1/2. He suffered complications from an E. coli infection, one that he developed, most likely, from eating contaminated hamburger meat. His passing would compel Kowalcyk to devote her career to preventing people from getting sick or dying from contaminated food and to helping change national policies that hold food producers accountable to the public. On Capitol Hill, in board rooms, in classrooms, and in interviews with the media, Kowalcyk has told her personal story many times. So often, people approach her and say her story changed their life, so she’s willing to continue talking about what happened. It’s no surprise Kowalcyk is also frequently contacted by local and national media when an outbreak occurs. She can quickly put it in context, and can rattle off all of the more significant foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States. She can name the date, the location of the source of contamination, and the type of food. 
Read more about Kowalcyk’s personal and professional story.


The research and capacity-building project led by Kowalcyk, who is also a member of the Translational Data Analytics initiative, builds on the strong foundation of food safety work conducted at Ohio State. The work will focus on three major food safety hazards in Ethiopia, including non-typhoidal Salmonella, diarrheagenic Escherichia coli and Campylobacter.

Consumption of beef and dairy is increasing in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa as their economies improve. However, traditional processing of these products occurs in informal settings, utilizes raw products and rarely involves safe food handling practices such as pasteurization and thorough cooking before eating. The study will investigate cost-effective, gender-sensitive and socio-culturally acceptable ways to improve the safety of raw beef and dairy products.

“Food safety is among the key elements in food value chain development and this project will undoubtedly provide many in Ethiopia with the information and training they need to improve safe handling practices,” said Jemal Yousuf, acting president of Haramaya University. “To play a key role in this collaborative effort will be a rewarding experience.”

Researchers will collect data on the nature, scope and costs associated with foodborne illness; develop, test and evaluate intervention strategies for improving the safety of raw beef and dairy products; share findings and public health impacts; and engage government agencies in establishing priorities for future food safety efforts. The project aims to implement a risk-based decision-making roadmap for food safety that will benefit other low- to middle-income countries with similar food systems. Long-term sustainability of food safety practices will be achieved by building capacity at Ethiopian regulatory institutes and academic institutions, including training provided through Ohio State’s One Health Summer Institute held annually in Ethiopia.

The project will involve faculty and research expertise from the Global One Health initiative’s (GOHi) eastern Africa office, the Colleges of Education and Human Ecology and Public Health, the University of Florida’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Livestock Systems, the International Livestock Research Institute, the Ethiopian Public Health Institute, University of Gondar and Haramaya University, as well as several other academic institutions and government agencies in Ethiopia.

“This project is an excellent example of multidisciplinary teamwork among key Ohio State initiatives such as the Discovery Themes, GOHi and the colleges that aims to build mutually beneficial partnerships that make a global impact in high-priority areas using the One Health model,” said Wondwossen Gebreyes, executive director of GOHi and professor of veterinary preventive medicine.

The Ohio State team involved in the project includes Kowalcyk, principal investigator; Gebreyes; Ahmed Yousef, professor, College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences; Robert Scharff, associate professor, College of Education and Human Ecology; Mark Weir, assistant professor, College of Public Health; Getnet Yimer, GOHi Eastern Africa regional director; Kassahun Asmare, GOHi Eastern Africa deputy regional director; and Kara Morgan, research scientist, College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.