Fighting Foodborne Illness

From the latest E. coli outbreak at a popular fast food chain to contamination in our salad greens, foodborne illnesses make headlines and make a lot of people sick. Now, UT Austin public health students are working to be part of the solution. In a class on foodborne illnesses, they explore how health officials, from the federal level to the local level, handle outbreaks.

“We see a lot of different public health crises,” said Marilyn Felkner, the assistant professor overseeing the class. “But foodborne illness never stops. There is a need to have a well-trained professional sector to investigate and prevent foodborne illnesses.” 

Felkner came to UT after having served 16 years at the Texas Department of State Health Services, where she oversaw interns and mentored students. Now students trained in her class will be able to work part-time for two semesters with the same department, with funding provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

In class, students get first-hand experience conducting interviews with patients, handling data and working with various agencies to track outbreaks.

“This will put students in an excellent position after graduation,” Felkner said. “Students can go right to work in a local health department.”

And it’s food-safety experts in local health departments who are on the front lines of protecting the food supply, Felkner said. While many think about the CDC tracking dangerous outbreaks, it’s actually people at the local and state levels who provide the data the agency uses. 

“They can’t do it alone,” Felkner said.