Getting to Know Ellen Schroth, Food Safety Warrior at Foodsense, Inc.
Here at STOP Foodborne Illlness, we come across many impressive food safety folks in our work.
Some tend to really knock our socks off, though. And Ellen Schroth is definitely one of them!
Today, we invite you to step inside Ellen’s work life as a super passionate, seasoned, forward-thinking food safety consultant at her firm, Foodsense, Inc. In our special Q & A with Ellen, she dives into how she helps foodservice establishments prevent foodborne illness, and she shares some fantastic advice on how YOU can best respond to food safety concerns when you’re dining out.
Q: Ellen, first tell us about your story and what motivated you to pursue a career in food safety.
A: As I entered my last year of college with a general science background, I was lucky to select a class taught by a dynamic and energetic professor of the Environmental Health program. He shared his passion endlessly and created an internship for his students at a local health department. And, in that first week when I made the rounds into the field with the local Environmental Health Specialist to protect the public’s health, I was hooked!
I feel very fortunate to have earned my degree in a field I love, to have found plentiful and rewarding work in public health, and to have parlayed that experience into building a food safety consulting firm. Of all the environmental health specialties I could’ve pursued, food safety was a natural fit for me as my home life has always been filled with the delights of cooking and baking.
Q: You’re the Founder and President of Foodsense, Inc. Why did you start it and how is your mission helping people avoid the perils of a foodborne illness?
A: As my career progressed in public health with the Virginia State Department of Health, I sensed a need developing in the foodservice industry. Some restaurant owners wanted more attention and sanitation advice than the health department was able to provide due to limited resources. I wanted to fill that need as it afforded me a new challenge, but, more importantly, an opportunity to have greater influence on a restaurant’s food safety program. So, in 1986, I launched Foodsense, Inc.
In my work, I share everything I know about food safety to help both industry players and consumers understand how foodborne illness happens and how to reduce those risks when dining out or eating at home.
My ultimate goal is to strike a chord inside each person so they keep educating themselves for the betterment of all.
Going forward, I’m planning to expand my work by reaching consumers through social media—perhaps as a “food safety ambassador” answering readers’ questions on a blogger’s website. As a scientist, I know germs change and adapt. I want to help consumers recognize facts from myths and help them stay informed and current.
Q: In your work at Foodsense, what’s a day in the life like?
A: I relish the variety of consulting I do at Foodsense—part scientist, detective, coach, and public relations liaison. It’s exhilarating work!
One day I may do an early morning inspection to evaluate whether my client’s kitchen-closing procedures adhered to food safety protocols. The next day, you could find me investigating a guest complaint of illness reported to my client where I examine facts and respond to the guest’s concerns. And the following day, I may be conducting interactive training for a client’s foodservice staff to keep food safety on the top of their minds.
Q: How is your partnership with STOP Foodborne Illness helping you achieve important food safety outcomes in your work?
A: I heard about STOP as soon as it was formed after the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack-in-the-Box. I’ve watched this dynamic organization grow and become a powerful force for much-needed change in protecting the food we eat.
I respect and admire STOP’s work immensely.
So, whenever I’m training my clients and their employees, I share a story or video from STOP of people whose lives were forever changed by eating unsafe food. These real-life stories work like nothing else when it comes to touching employees’ hearts and moving them to take ownership and action in the food safety cultures of my clients.
Q: Let’s get a little emotional here. Please share the “why” behind your work. What really gets you fired up to fight the big challenge of foodborne illness?
A: My Dad has lived 91 years and is still going strong. He’s been a role model for good health and I, like he, believe that eating well and participating in a physical activity you enjoy are part of the good health equation. So, to imagine a food that should give us good health could, instead, make us gravely ill or die is unthinkable. And yet it happens.
Like in the story of my high school friend, Richard, whose five-year-old son drank some tainted apple juice.
Instead of fueling his health, Richard’s kid landed in the hospital. His kidneys shut down. And his parents were left in shock and terror seeing it all. This kid was luckier than most—he survived. But, he can’t ever be sure if his health has been shortchanged by his brush with E. coli.
What keeps me in the fight?
I want to trust that food fuels good health for us all and use my work to close the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of foodborne illness.
Q: Right now, how can our readers help promote your work?
A: Having spoken to almost 2,000 individuals, one by one, about their experience getting sick while eating away from home, I’ve learned a lot.
Some people tell me they wished they’d said something to the restaurant manager when their instincts told them that their food didn’t seem safe—but they were silent.
Some people tell me about other dining experiences where they speak up, but the manager gets defensive and deflects their concerns.
And some people are unwavering in their conviction that the last meal they ate was the cause of their illness because they felt perfectly fine beforehand.
So, here’s my advice:
First, keep an open mind and keep learning about food safety so you’ll be an informed consumer.
We know of a couple of germs that will make you sick quickly after the meal you suspect, but most of the germs delay making you sick for 12 to 72 hours. Learn more about incubation periods and what to do if you think you’re sick.
Second, when dining out or eating prepared food from a retail store, if your instincts tell you something about your food doesn’t seem safe, if you observe an employee do something that looks like an unsafe behavior, or if you end up sick with vomiting or diarrhea, don’t hesitate to express your concerns to the manager.
Be civil and calm. A restaurant or store with a commitment to food safety will embrace your feedback. But, if the manager gets defensive, doesn’t empathize, or doesn’t offer a satisfactory solution, report your experience to the local health department and they’ll investigate on your behalf.
Ellen Schroth is a Registered Environmental Health Specialist (REHS) and President of Foodsense, Inc., which provides food safety consultation and training for federal government agencies, restaurants, cruise ships, and nursing homes. With her degree in Environmental Health from Quinnipiac University, Ellen joined the Virginia State Health Department where she honed her skills and became an active member in several professional associations. Her colleagues and mentors were instrumental in her professional growth and led her to many interesting opportunities including work with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) colleagues at an International Boy Scout Jamboree, co-chairing a National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) conference on child day care, and being selected as the food safety subject matter expert on the team that developed NEHA’s first REHS/RS exam. Ellen lives in McLean, VA, with her husband Dave and her 91-years-young Dad. She ascribes to the philosophy that variety is the spice of life! So, when she’s not working, Ellen teaches Pilates and ballet, studies flamenco dancing, cooks and bakes to her family’s delight, and plays music from Beethoven to Broadway on her piano.