‘Amazing’ facilities attract Gragg to UW–Madison

By Jim Massey, Freelance writer

Sara Gragg was settling into a career as an associate professor in the Department of Animal Sciences and Industry at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., when she learned about an opportunity in the relatively new Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery (MSABD) program within the UW–Madison Animal and Dairy Sciences Department.

Department chair Kent Weigel reached out and asked Sara if she would consider joining a growing team of food safety experts at UW–Madison. 

“I knew (the UW) had amazing facilities and that I had to at least consider the position and there was no harm in exploring the opportunity. I figured if it’s not right, we don’t have to do it. But one thing led to another, and here I am.”

Sara Gragg

Gragg joined the Animal and Dairy Sciences Department in August of 2023. Her research program investigates pre- and post-harvest issues affecting the meat and produce industries, with specific interests addressing the manner by which pathogens contaminate food products and the application of interventions to prevent and/or reduce pathogen presence.

She says the research capabilities at the MSABD align perfectly with her areas of research.

“The ability to effectively simulate commercial procedures, processes, conditions, etc., on a large-scale level in a state-of-the-art facility within our own building is game-changing,” she says. 

She has already begun collaborating with her new colleagues at the MSABD, who bring a diverse set of skill sets to the table to address the issues facing farmers and meat processors today.

Steven Ricke, MSABD director, says he is “delighted” that Gragg joined the MSABD staff.

“She brings tremendous food safety expertise to our meats program, and we look forward to working with her,” he says.

Gragg knew from an early age that she wanted to work in food safety and academia. As a high school student in Lincoln, Neb., she worked on microbiology projects in Mindy Brashears’s lab at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Brashears, who for a brief time served as the Under Secretary for Food Safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is now the director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. 

“Mindy’s husband, Todd, was my ag teacher and FFA adviser when I was in high school, so that’s how I made the connection,” Gragg says. “I did some research projects with her and worked on things like agriscience fairs and other competitions. A lot of students change their majors as undergrads and don’t know what they want to do when they grow up. I was fortunate to sort of fall into food safety as a high school student and it stuck. I fell in love with it.”

Gragg attended the University of Nebraska to earn a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology and followed Brashears when she took a position Texas Tech, where Gragg earned her master’s and doctorate degrees. She did post-doctoral work at Texas Tech and then took a job at Kansas State University in June of 2013, starting a research lab on a brand new campus in Olathe, Kan.

“It was two hours away from the mother ship and it was a very unique and interesting experience,” she says. “It’s fun to get shiny new objects and new toys but it is also a long process. You can’t just show up and do research. I showed up with a funded project, so I had to build a new lab from scratch and do it quickly enough that I could still fulfill my obligation to meet the timeline for the research project.”

Gragg moved from Olathe to the main Kansas State campus in Manhattan in 2018. She worked on her research projects there until Weigel and the MSABD program came calling in 2022.

Three of Gragg’s graduate students – two working on master’s degrees and one Ph.D. candidate – transferred with her to UW–Madison, where they are continuing their research projects in her lab.

“It was really humbling to know that they had such a good experience at K-State and wanted to continue working with me that they would uproot their lives to continue their training here,” she says. 

Gragg says she has a solid understanding of what is required to efficiently establish a research program and is well underway to doing that at UW–Madison. As in her previous positions, she is working on pre- and post-harvest issues affecting swine and cattle. 

The meat industry works hard to produce safe, nutritious products, Gragg says, but there are foodborne pathogens that are naturally associated with the gastrointestinal tracts of food animals. In some cases the animals become clinically ill with these pathogens, but in most cases they are asymptomatic, so the pathogens can be difficult to detect. 

“We work hard to understand the relationship between the pathogens and the animals and their environments,” she says. “By understanding that further we can understand the opportunities for mitigation. So ultimately on the pre-harvest side we are doing what we can to reduce those pathogens in the animals and in their environments so there are less pathogens when the animals get into the processing facilities.”

Once the animals get into the processing facilities, Gragg and MSABD researchers work with the plants to validate intervention technologies and different ways of processing the carcasses and understanding the greatest risks for contamination based on knowing those pathogens are there. 

Gragg does a lot of work in salmonella contamination of lymph nodes, identifying how salmonella is transmitted and how it might end up in the food supply. The goal is to intervene and provide mitigation measures that are meaningful and effective.

“I think sometimes there is a misconception that these pathogens wouldn’t be there if the processing facilities did a better job,” she says. “But these animals are reservoirs for these pathogens, and if the animal is asymptomatic and not clinically ill, it is difficult to determine if they have salmonella which may or may not end up in the food supply.”

Gragg says she doesn’t see her research focus changing much in the near future as salmonella research “is going to continue to be a very important area.”

“We’ve got to try to see if we can find a way to reduce salmonella and other pathogens before they get in the food supply,” she says.

Gragg says she is proud of the students she has mentored over the years and looks forward to working with more of them in Madison.

“Training the next generation of scientists to be ethical, knowledgeable and hardworking leaders in the food industry is a privilege and a responsibility that I do not take lightly,” she says. “Graduate students make our research programs possible. They are dedicated to their projects, to helping one another succeed, and the often unpredictable schedules that accompany research. It brings me great pride to see each student succeed.”

Gragg has brought her love for the Kansas City Chiefs and Nebraska volleyball with her to Madison, both which put her somewhat at odds with sports fans here. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes played at Texas Tech before becoming a Chief, so Gragg was a fan at both levels.She and her husband, Justin, enjoy following their sons’ sporting activities (their sons are 13 and 10), participating in outdoor activities and traveling.