April 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA5

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Development and Design of a "Gateway" to Food Safety Information on the Internet for Extension Educators

Consumer education is essential to decreasing food borne illness. Extension educators need food safety information that is both accurate and timely. Many are using the Internet as a tool for distance education, as it offers "just in time training" and information retrieval. The North Carolina CES developed a food safety information retrieval system on the Web. Upon completion, the system has received much national attention. It was rated "Among the Best" by Tufts University and featured as one of the top ten Web sites for food safety and nutrition information in a USA Today article.

Melissa C. Taylor
Food Safety Extension Specialist
Internet Address: foodsafety@ncsu.edu
Food Safety Web Site: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/foodsci/agentinfo/

Patricia A. Curtis
Associate Professor and Extension Specialist
Internet Address: Pat_Curtis@ncsu.edu

Department of Food Science
North Carolina State University
Raleigh, North Carolina


Considerable research by government, academia, and the private sector is directed toward improving the safety and quality of food products. Despite these efforts, the findings are not adequately disseminated and fully adopted by consumers. Extension educators need to continually enhance their capacity to communicate research-based knowledge, which may have a great effect on the general public. Extension educators are constantly in need of training and updating their skills as well as needing dependable and readily accessible resources.

Consumer education in basic food safety principles is essential to decreasing the incidence of food borne illness in the United States. As academia, government, and industry step up their food safety activities, consumers need to understand their responsibilities as the last line of defense in assuring the safety of the foods they prepare and consume. Data on common food handling practices in the home show that, in many cases, consumer food handling practices pose greater risk for food borne disease than those introduced by the food and food service industry (Gravini, 1997). Studies show that over half of all consumers eat raw or undercooked eggs, 23% eat undercooked hamburger, 17% consume raw clams and oysters, and 26% do not wash cutting boards after using them for raw meat or poultry (Hingley, 1997).

As part of North Carolina's Food Safety and Quality Cooperative Extension Major Program (CEMP), a food safety information retrieval system was developed for Extension educators to promote food safety in North Carolina and beyond (Taylor, 1998). This award-winning effort has had local and national acclaim. The goal is to provide agents with an interactive computer system to address important food safety questions. The popularity and accessibility of the Internet made it an excellent choice for this educational effort. The objectives were to (a) design and develop this interactive system, (b) place the food safety information on the World Wide Web (WWW), and (c) evaluate the effectiveness of the system for agents answering food safety-related questions.

Materials and Methods

Developers of the food safety information retrieval system did not want to recreate existing information, but instead wanted to be a "gateway" for the multitude of food safety information available on the Internet. With the Internet growing daily, coupled with the complexity of food safety issues, the goal was to have a simple, user-friendly design. Eight main sections were chosen as modules. They are meat, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and "hot topics". The information was gathered through an extensive search of the Web and placed into the appropriate modules. All modules except the "hot topics" section have the same backbone. Each section includes a main page, with four choices for the user, (a) a section listing food safety organisms of concern specific to that commodity,(b) links to consumer publications, (c) research and industry information, and (d) related organizations relevant to the commodity.

The design is simple. The layout allows the user to retrieve information in a rapid and efficient way that can also be fun. Users can easily become familiar with the site and feel comfortable no matter what type of question they have or where they begin their search. The consumer publications section is also broken down according to the types of information available for specific areas. The "hot topics" section currently has eighteen topic areas and was too large to be designed with the same four-choice format as the other modules.

Navigational buttons were created and placed on every page in the system to serve several purposes. They identify the system as a unique database and recognize the author and the institution. They also allow the user to navigate throughout the system with little confusion. From any page within the system, the user can return to the current module home page, return to the system main page, or use resources available in addition to the system modules. These resources include consumer hot lines, available workshops, press releases and product recalls, numerous food safety resources for educators and direct links to the sponsoring group. For legal purposes, a disclaimer is linked to all materials.

Results and Discussion

The information used to create the system consists of over 580 external links to publications and fact sheets already available on the Web, and over 125 links to other useful Web sites. The author (Taylor) developed over 100 Web sites within the database.

The Internet is cutting edge technology and can be used to reach agents answering important food safety questions with timely information and educational tools. The information available in the food safety information retrieval system spans a broad spectrum of food safety issues and assists in achieving other goals of North Carolina's Food Safety and Quality CEMP, as well.

Family and Consumer Sciences county Extension educators were surveyed at the 1996 and 1997 state Extension staff conference. Issues ranged from general computer knowledge and use to expectations for the Internet's use as a tool for food safety education. Educators indicated they would like to see the following in a system -- 100% wanted to see fact sheets, 96% wanted answers to frequently asked questions, 92% desired Extension bulletins, and 72% indicated they would like to be aware of upcoming workshops. These needs are met by the completed food safety information retrieval system.

After a short hands-on demonstration of the first phase of the system, county educators were given the opportunity to evaluate the first module. Sixty eight percent rated the information excellent, while the remaining 32% felt it was good. All agreed the system was user friendly and designed for any level of computer skills. In a recent survey of the completed system, approximately 75% of educators indicated that they have been using the system. Those that have not indicated an interest in beginning to use the system after seeing the finished product. Those surveyed thought the system was easily accessible and had more detail than other programs available.

Because of information related to holiday food safety in the system, specifically how to properly cook poultry, a local television station featured the system during the holidays and set up a link from their Web site. The Web site was also discussed on a local talk radio show, informing the public of this available resource. In addition, the system has been demonstrated and promoted at various conferences and national meetings such as the National Educational Forum for Food Safety Issues (NEFFSI) and the first annual National Food Safety Education Conference (Taylor and Curtis, 1997).

The Web site has also received national recognition. An article in USA Today featured the system as one of the top ten Web sites for food safety and nutrition information (Oldenburg, 1998). Tufts University developed a rating system for nutrition-related Web sites, known as the Nutrition Navigator, and in a recent review of more than 200 Web sites, the Nutrition Navigator rated the food safety information system "among the best" in the world by the review panel. The system earned perfect scores for timeliness, accuracy and depth of information provided and was placed in the top six of all sites reviewed. "Among the Best" ratings are awarded only to Web sites that serve as outstanding resources and maintain a high level of integrity and nutrition reporting," said Jeanne Goldberg, director of the Tufts University Center on Nutrition Communication. "The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service is definitely a leader in the electronic delivery of food safety and nutrition information" (Goldberg, 1998).

A recent review determined that the site receives an average of 2,124 hits per day and in the eight month period from January to August 1998 received over half a million hits. One example that indicates the impact the site is having locally is when a hurricane hit the North Carolina coast in late August 1998. The developer sent an e-mail, reminding county agents of the special section within "Hot Topics" entitled "What to do after a natural disaster strikes." As a result, the site received over 40,000 visits in just one day. Food safety inquiries are received almost daily, from all over the world, to foodsafety@ncsu.edu (the address on all Web pages in the system).

The system has far surpassed the original objectives, as it has received much attention outside of North Carolina. This is good news and further justifies the need for the creation and continued existence of the system. With food safety consistently in the news and its rapidly increasing popularity among consumers, the system will keep users abreast of the latest information in the most timely manner.


Goldberg, J. (1998). Personal e-mail communication (2/4/98). Director, Center on Nutrition Communication, Tufts University.

Gravini, R. B. (1997). Coordinated approach to food safety education is needed. Food Technology 51(7),160.

Hingley, A. (1997, September-October). Focus on food safety - Initiative calls on government, industry, consumers to stop food related illnesses. FDA Consumer Magazine.

Oldenburg, A. (1998, January 6). Web sites give much food for thought. USA TODAY, 16(79).

Taylor, M. C. (1998). Food safety education through the design and implementation of an interactive food safety information retrieval system on the World Wide Web. Unpublished masters thesis. North Carolina State University Raleigh.

Taylor, M. C. & Curtis, P. A. (1997). Food safety education through the design and implementation of an interactive food safety information retrieval system on the World Wide Web. Proceedings of the Center for Disease Control conference, USDA/FDA, Washington, D.C. 54.