July 30, 2010 - Before the Beach by Bob Yesbek

Kaye Wachsmuth, Ph.D.

Celebrated chef and gourmet James Beard said, “Food is our common ground—a universal experience.” But without strict procedures for sanitation every step of the way from farm to table, that common ground can quickly go from pleasure to poison. With every bite, we place our faith in researchers whose job it is to ensure that our meals are free of dangerous pathogens. Scientist and Rehoboth Beach resident Kaye Wachsmuth has been instrumental in establishing vital procedures and protocols to keep our home cooking and restaurant experiences out of harm’s way.

Like most little girls who grew up in the ‘50s, young Kaye was encouraged to forget about science (you know, all that “guy” stuff) and instead explore artistic endeavors. Fortunately for her, one of her college professors recognized her interest in all things technical, and his encouragement paved the way for her distinguished career as an award-winning research scientist.
Kaye enrolled as a graduate student at the prestigious Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies in Tennessee, where her groundbreaking research into the genetic structure of E. coli (a nasty little beastie that causes serious food poisoning) earned her a Doctorate degree in Microbiology. For the next 25 years, Dr. Wachsmuth continued her work with bacteria at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, pioneering the use of DNA fingerprinting of foodborne pathogens. She published over 160 scientific articles, receiving a number of honors and awards, and her research was eventually used to formulate Foodnet, the CDC’s disease surveillance system. Her recommendations brought about procedures for maintaining safe temperatures for food destined for Japanese school cafeterias, and helped establish disease surveillance programs in Southeast Asia and South America.

When she wasn’t traveling or peering into a microscope, Kaye led a quiet and private home life. That changed in the late ‘70s, however, when mutual friends introduced Kaye to the gregarious and outspoken Ann Black, a local Atlanta interior designer and real estate agent. The chemistry was instantaneous, and in 1979 they publicly committed themselves to one another. That was the best you could do back then, but times change, and 25 years later they commemorated their anniversary by traveling to Canada and making their marriage official. Ann’s flair for art and her outgoing nature are evident when they entertain friends and colleagues in their beautifully appointed home.

In the mid-90s, Kaye moved to the FDA where she helped create guidelines for converting scientific research into government action. The success of her team brought about a resolution to the mystery of Legionnaires disease, identification of the Hantavirus threat in the western U.S., and the implementation of measures to track and prevent salmonella in eggs. Dr. Wachsmuth’s part in managing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in the USSR, Japan and Burma helped earn her the chair of the International Committee for Food Hygiene, part of the globally recognized Codex Alimentarius. This comprehensive “food code” is now administered jointly by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

It wasn’t unusual for Kaye to get calls in the middle of the night to respond to outbreaks of illness from contaminated foods such as chicken, produce, apple juice and oysters. Some of these events even made the news, such as the nationwide Schwann’s Ice Cream recall (microbial contamination in the shipping process) and the notorious 1983 “Big Mac Attack,” when E. coli was discovered in meat being supplied to McDonald’s. Techniques for precision microtesting in the field opened the door for fast-food corporations to impose strict requirements onto their meat and produce suppliers. In fact, epidemiological studies since then have demonstrated that food served by McDonald’s and other national fast-food chains is actually safer than that prepared in your own home!

In the late ‘90s Kaye became Director of the Office of Public Health and Science at the USDA, where she and her colleagues codified the principles that would become the rationale behind the well-known HACCP systems (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points). The logical and controlled approach to food sanitation embodied by HACCP serves as a benchmark for restaurants, grocery stores, school cafeterias, purveyors and any other place where food is handled.

Over the years, Kaye and Ann loved to escape to their condo in Rehoboth Beach and fantasize about eventually moving here. Their dream came true in 2002 when Kaye retired from the USDA. Though they shuttled back and forth to Florida for a few years, they finally made Rehoboth Beach their home. Retired or not, Kaye’s interest in all things microscopic continues. She still consults to the FDA; often interacting with food manufacturers to upgrade their standards. At present she’s helping to set up cooperative systems in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia to help reduce often-fatal outbreaks of foodborne illness.

So the next time you sit down in a restaurant, buy fresh produce, or grab a burger or a slice on the boardwalk, think of Dr. Kaye Wachsmuth and the thousands of scientists and researchers who work behind the scenes to make sure your eating experience is clean and safe.

Bob Yesbek is a Rehoboth Beach resident. He can be reached at Bob@RehobothFoodie.com.