Balancing Food Safety with Food Excellence
Scientist Informs Fierce Debate Between Cheesemakers and Regulators
- By Cheryl Dorschner
Farmstead cheese is one of the great recent successes of dairying. Vermont leads in its production in New England, and the University of Vermont had the great good sense to launch, in 2004, the first and only comprehensive research and teaching center – the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC).
But the cheese industry recently faced several recalls and two multi-state e coli outbreaks that sickened 50 people. And the USDA is scrutinizing raw milk cheesemakers with an eye toward strict laws.
As senior research scientist for VIAC, Dennis “DJ” D’Amico’s research sits squarely at the four-way intersection of this burgeoning agriculture sector, unpredictable spates of food-borne illnesses, proposed federal regulations and fierce debate.
‘Talk about being at the right place at the right time.
“Dennis “DJ” D’Amico will lead the balance between assuring public safety and keeping the vibrant cheesemaking sector free of unnecessary restrictions,” said Tom Vogelmann, dean of UVM’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences as he presented D’Amico with the College’s New Achiever Award on May 14 at its alumni and friends awards dinner on campus. D'Amico lives in Essex Junction.
D’Amico earned his UVM degrees in nutrition and food sciences in 2002 and 2004; and animal, nutrition and food sciences in 2008. He was an outstanding undergrad, called a natural teacher and people manager while he was a grad student and worked with minimal supervision as a Ph.D. candidate. He was hired immediately by UVM’s VIAC. He is also a lecturer for the Institute and three other courses. He has tallied nine peer-reviewed publications and 12 abstracts. At such a young age, he fluently communicates with small-time cheesemakers, international regulators, fellow scientists and national reporters, with equal aplomb.
In conducting research on the threat of pathogens in raw-milk-artisan cheesemaking, he attracted national funding, then did the work it would normally take a large team of researchers. He conducts scientific environmental surveillance of raw milk to assess risks and to control and eliminate the deadly pathogen listeria. His work led to a second-place national award as a developing scientist and informed the FDA and Health Canada as they evaluate the food safety of soft-ripened, raw-milk cheeses.
This spring, DJ’s research was the subject of much media attention including “The New York Times,” the “Atlantic,” ABC and Fox News.
In nominating him for this award, Catherine Donnelly said, “DJ is the singular, most outstanding scientist with whom I have had the pleasure of working.” Co-Director of VIAC, Donnelly was DJ’s Ph.D. advisor and now is his employer.
Paul Kindstedt also co-director of VIAC, called D’Amico’s research “timely and much needed, and has already positioned DJ as one of the top experts in this country on the microbiology of raw milk cheeses.” He added, “it is imperative to have credible, unbiased scientific data to guide public policy debates on critical issues of this nature, and even more critical to have outstanding young scientists such as DJ D’Amico conducting this work.”
It was duly noted that D’Amico is also a connoisseur beer maker who leads workshops on beer and cheese pairings. ‘Just one more reason to raise a glass to his rapid rise in the world of farm-based artisan foods.