Research, outreach education and teaching are the main academic functions of CAHNR. At the hub of all three is Assistant Professor Dennis D’Amico, who solves food safety and quality problems in his research laboratory, brings his findings and assistance to dairy producers and teaches UConn students. “Our lab approaches food safety and quality from farm to fork and translates findings from our fundamental research into commercial practice,” D’Amico said.
As a microbiologist, D’Amico sees all his work as an integrated effort with the common denominator of microbiology and its roles in the production of dairy foods, like cheese and yogurt, as well as in product spoilage and safety. Much of his research and educational efforts concentrate on smaller operations that are the norm for the Connecticut producer. However, D’Amico, who is on the faculty of the Department of Animal Science, has a few large-scale dairy research projects, as well.
Research informs outreach, and outreach leads to research
In a USDA Rural Development multi-year research project that just ended, D’Amico worked one-on-one with seven small-scale Connecticut cheese making operations to address food safety concerns and prepare them for related audits and inspections.
D’Amico made recommendations, based on his observations and microbiological testing. Six out of seven producers made changes that were documented, such as improving cleaning and sanitation and controlling traffic flow. He also suggested structural changes to facilities and assisted in developing product testing protocols.
His current active research includes five projects where D’Amico is the principle investigator, with funding of over $368,000 from the UConn Foundation, federal agencies and industry groups. In multi-state grants where he is co-PI, the grants amount to over $840,000.
As an example of the synergy between his responsibilities, D’Amico cites the situations he encounters when he interacts with operators. Some of the small-scale production problems are unique to the size of the operations, and the producers need help. “My research projects are the direct response to questions that don’t have answers,” he said. Once D’Amico finds solutions, he distributes information via publications, workshops, webinars and a website called Safe Cheese Making Hub.
One such study, funded by a National Institute of Food and Agriculture-USDA grant for $150,000, is aiding some of these artisan producers to control pathogens that may be present when making cheese from raw, unpasteurized milk. To do this, D’Amico’s lab is investigating “good” protective and probiotic bacteria that can eliminate the “bad” bacteria. As a result, the cheese gets a coveted “clean label,” which includes only familiar, trusted ingredients.
Looking into the good vs. bad microbes is also the focus of research D’Amico is doing with Sister Noella Marcellino, who is known as “the Cheese Nun” and appears in a PBS video of the same name. Data is currently being analyzed from extensive samples D’Amico took from the wooden tools, air, water and anything else that might come into contact with the cheese that Marcellino makes at The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. He says that he thinks findings from the abbey study will offer much promise for small-scale cheese makers.
For a project that reaches producers all over the country, D’Amico put together an interactive online learning lab with a collaborative group from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University and North Carolina State. It is called Food Safety Basics for Artisan Cheesemakers and is the first one in a series sponsored by the National Dairy Council.
The goal is to help artisan (made by hand) and farmstead (using milk from the same farm where it is made by hand) cheese makers comply with standards and create safe cheese. Since its launch in August, 635 people registered for the class and 138 completed it. Course completion climbed to 21.7 percent at press time. In regard to self-reported knowledge gains, D’Amico said, “About 50 percent of the respondents stated that they made changes to their food safety and quality programs as a result of this course.”
Students learn how to do research and outreach
About eight undergraduate and four graduate students per semester figure prominently in D’Amico’s research lab where they learn more about food safety, microbiology and Extension outreach education.
Students also get hands-on experience as interns in the UConn Creamery and local dairy farms where they learn about day-to-day concerns like sanitation, regulations and value-added products. In addition, upper level undergraduates in nutrition, animal science, pathobiology and related disciplines have the opportunity to take Animal Food Products: Dairy Technology and an affiliated scientific writing course from D’Amico.
D’Amico, who is a national and regional award-winning cheese maker in his own right, says he is inspired in his research, outreach education and teaching by his fascination with the microbiology of dairy foods and how it affects flavor and safety. He observes, “These products make themselves; we don’t make them.” He also wonders, “How does this cheese become this cheese?” In the end, D’Amico sees his role as one of providing and promoting the safe and ideal conditions that keep the cheese magic happening.
By Patsy Evans