The Next Generation of Food Safety Innovators

By: Marianna Naum, Ph.D

How many of us played with LEGOs as children? I’d wager that a fair number of Americans across generations are familiar with those little colored blocks with their characteristic nubby surfaces. But you’d be forgiven if your first thought was to build a castle or a helicopter, and not a food safety robot.

FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., along with FDA judges Marianna Naum and Keith Lampel

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., along with FDA judges Marianna Naum and Keith Lampel

Wait—LEGOs and food safety? That’s right. The 2011 FIRST LEGO League (FLL) Food Factor Challenge invited more than 18,000 teams of 9-to-14-year-olds to use LEGOs to build a machine to solve food safety problems. Commissioner Hamburg was on hand to give a congratulatory “high five” to the winners, and I was honored to be a judge in this year’s competition.

To be successful, the teams had to educate themselves very quickly on many different aspects of food safety in order to complete the first part of the challenge: identifying a specific food safety problem. Then each team had to come up with an inventive solution that was feasible, original, cost-effective, and commercially viable; a tall order even for experienced researchers who have spent many years studying food safety. Local competitions narrowed down the contestants from 18,000 to 270 teams. That is when FDA judges got involved.

I had first heard about the Food Factor Challenge from my nephew, Tom, who was a member of the ‘Robot Zombies’ in Milwaukee, WI. Unfortunately, the Robot Zombies’ proposal did not make the final cut for the contest, but the team’s enthusiasm echoes loudly to this day. I encountered that same energy in ‘Next Gen’ – a local Maryland team that invited me to speak to them about food safety and the challenges we face in food microbiology. I knew that if the other participants possessed the same zeal and enthusiasm as the ‘Robot Zombies’ and ‘Next Gen,’ we’d get to see some really innovative and resourceful proposals.

I was not disappointed. My expectation for creative, out-of-the box thinking was met when I reviewed 67 of the proposals and chose my top three. The proposals were amazingly well thought out, and I was impressed by the amount of work team members had completed to test the feasibility, efficiency or commercial viability of their innovative solution. It was tough having to eliminate teams, and my colleagues and I held what seemed like endless scientific debates over which teams to advance. Apparently we were not the only ones who had a hard time deciding! The panel of judges who selected this year’s winning team – different experts from those who screened the entries — also had a hard time.  How do I know?  This year’s competition resulted in not one, but two winning teams. The ‘S.I.S. Robotic Revolution’ won for designing a smart sticker – placed on the outside of a refrigerated food container – which changes color when food is not stored at proper temperatures. The second team to win, ‘Moderately Confused,’ developed the Erasable Barcode, which has temperature sensitive ink that prevents it from being scanned when meat is stored at improper temperatures.

Increasing consumer awareness of food safety is one of the keys to preventing foodborne illness. The Food Factor Challenge accomplished so much more. It encouraged participants to learn about food safety; fostered creativity by challenging teams to come up with imaginative solutions to existing food safety problems; and inspired thousands – many of whom may become our future food scientists.

Marianna Naum is a Policy Analyst, Division of Education and Communication, Office of Food Defense, Communication and Emergency Response, in FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.


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