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WSU Food Safety Program Reaps More Honors

PULLMAN, Wash. — In the Hispanic culture grandmothers – abuelas (ah-BWAY-lahs) – occupy positions of considerable respect and authority.

Abuelas are strongly associated with food traditions, such as queso fresco, a soft cheese traditionally made from raw milk. So it was only natural that Washington State University incorporated abuelas into its educational program to combat outbreaks of Salmonella food poisonings in Yakima County in 1997.

Now, the highly successful program is garnering awards. Most recently, the Abuela Project team was honored by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, at the USDA’s 53rd Annual Honor Awards program in Washington, D.C. The Abuela Team received the Honor Award for Group Achievement In Public Service.

Earlier this month the program also was singled out by Gov. Gary Locke for inclusion in “Governing for Results,” a quarterly publication that highlights state programs that are helping improve the quality of Washington state government. Last year, the project received the first ever, national Dannon Institute Award for Excellence in Community Nutrition.

The program is credited with essentially ending Yakima Valley outbreaks of Salmonella poisoning from queso fresco cheese.

In 1997, queso fresco made with raw milk was implicated in a major outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium in Yakima County. Ninety cases were reported in Yakima County during a five-month period. Val Hillers, WSU extension food specialist, who was familiar with the use of abuelas in a Colorado State University project called Healthy Kitchens, proposed using abuelas in an educational program in the Yakima Valley.

Hillers and Theo Thomas, WSU Yakima County extension educator, soon devised a two-pronged program. One goal was an educational program to teach Hispanics how to make queso fresco from pasteurized milk, thus eliminating the risk of Salmonella poisoning. The other goal was to help end the sale of queso fresco made from raw milk in small scale, unlicensed cheese operations.

Two sisters and their mother, all Yakima residents, figured prominently in development of the Abuela Project. Julia Herrera had developed a recipe for queso fresco made with pasteurized milk. This recipe was modified in the WSU food science and human nutrition department to inhibit undesirable microbial growth, increase shelf life and to make it easier to prepare.

The new recipe was translated into Spanish and published with illustrations showing the process. More than a thousand copies have been distributed through safe cheese workshops and by other means.

Herrera’s daughters, Frances Herrera and Anna Zaragoza, were enlisted as abuela trainers. Initially, they trained 15 Yakima County abuelas to teach others how to use the queso fresco recipe, and why it is important not to make the cheese from raw milk.

Beginning in July 1997, bilingual trainers conducted workshops that provided hands-on experience in making safe queso fresco. Each abuela received a set of equipment to demonstrate how to make the cheese, as well as fliers and an apron bearing the project logo.

Abuelas agreed to conduct safe-cheese workshops in their community. A followup survey six months later revealed that more than 250 people had attended workshops conducted by these WSU-trained abuelas. Almost half of the abuelas and workshop participants said they had made queso fresco with raw milk before receiving the training, but all had converted to use of pasteurized milk.

Hillers said many food safety education campaigns focus on the need to avoid eating risky foods, but the Abuela Project took a different tactic. It sought to take the risk out of the food.

“Findings from the Abuela Project suggest that making queso fresco at home is a strongly held custom within the Hispanic community. Without a safer, acceptable alternative recipe, many people continued to make queso fresco with raw milk,” said Hillers.

The Yakima County Abuela Project has been expanded to Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin and Grant counties and now has about 45 abuelas. Hillers said this fall it will move into Walla Walla county.

The food science and human nutrition department also is helping develop a small-scale process for making commercial quantities of queso fresco from pasteurized milk and WSU is working to help develop a facility.

Margaret Viebrock, WSU Douglas County Extension educator, and representatives from the Washington State Department of Agriculture have met with a group of individuals who are interested in becoming licensed producers of queso fresco. The Columbia River Country Kitchen in East Wenatchee, owned by the Port of Douglas County, will be used for commercial queso fresco production. The Port plans to invest about $12,000 to purchase cheese-making equipment and a pasteurizer.

Present in Washington D.C. to receive the award were Hillers, Thomas, Herrera Zaragoza. Other members of the team were food scientists Stephanie Clark and Lloyd Luedecke, research technician Mike Costello and Ryan Bell, a graduate student.

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