Nancy Haberstich sees bugs everywhere.
Not insects, but invisible microbes -- bacteria, viruses and fungi -- lurking in our kitchen sinks, having orgies in our damp dishcloths and lying in wait on the skins of fruits and vegetables.
She calls them Nanobugs and in 2007 launched her own business (Nanobugs, Inc.) with the goal of making microbiology practical.
Nanobugs (a.k.a. Microbes with Attitude) are cartoonish, but scientifically accurate, microbial characters meant to personify bacteria, fungi and viruses, in memorable and meaningful ways.
Nanobugs are an inevitable component of nature.
But in human hands and digestive systems, they can be bothersome, debilitating, even lethal, Haberstich said.
“Serial killers. Or as in the case of bacillus cereus, ‘cereal’ killers,” she said, making a pun.
Her goal? To turn everyday moms, dads and kids into Nanobug profilers.
“Being a profiler is just smart,” Haberstich said.
But many people are intimidated by the bugs’ giant, hard to pronounce -- and even harder to spell -- names: listeria monocytogenes, escherichia coli 0157:H7, staphylococcus aureus ...
We seek comfort in our naivety: What we don’t know can’t hurt us.
Except, it can. Most of us have no clue what these nasty critters are, or how they operate -- until there is an outbreak of foodborne illness or a massive recall like the current one affecting hundreds of frozen vegetable products across the country.
One in six people will get a foodborne illness this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
That’s 48 million Americans.
Of those 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die -- the majority of them pregnant women, children, elderly and with weakened immune systems, the CDC said.
Too often we vilify the food distributor, the restaurant, the food service worker -- when the real blame is the bug, Haberstich said.
As schools let out for summer, temperatures heat up and life is filled with picnics, potlucks, grilling and outdoor excursions, Haberstich is launching a summerlong, communitywide Lincoln Food Safety Initiative.
For many bugs, summer, with its heat and humidity, is their favorite time of the year.
The idea is not to scare people -- or criticize their hygiene habits -- but to educate them on why we are nagged to wash our hands, clean our produce and buy pasteurized dairy products, Haberstich said. To raise awareness of why we need to wash our reusable grocery sacks, microwave our kitchen sponge, and do away with the old 5-second rule when food falls on the floor.
If people know why they do things, and how to do things, they will be more apt to actually do those things, Haberstich said.
Haberstich and Nanobugs Inc. will kick off the Lincoln Food Safety Initiative Thursday with a fundraiser at Raising Cane's, 403 N. 48th St. There will be Nanobug tattoos and coloring pages, and the restaurant will donate 20 percent of its proceeds from 5 to 8 p.m. to the Food Safety Initiative when they mention Nanobugs at the time of their food order.
Each Wednesday this summer, the Lincoln Journal Star will publish practical food safety tips courtesy of Nanobugs and Haberstich’s forthcoming book “Nanobugs in the Kitchen: A food safety guide for busy mothers.”
In addition, Haberstich and Nanobugs is looking to partner with other Lincoln businesses and organizations to promote food safety in relevant, fun and memorable ways.
Haberstich wants her Nanobugs to do for microbes what Michael Crichton and “Jurassic Park” did for dinosaurs -- make them as recognizable and understood as a Tyrannosaurus rex and a pterodactyl.
Because the truth is, these microscopic bugs can be far more deadly and dangerous than a T. rex, and much harder to stop than a Velociraptor unless you know how they migrate.
Haberstich said personifying microbes will promote “self directed learning and compliance” with food safety rules.
“People say yeah, you need to wash your hands, cover your cough, wear a condom … my point is how can you get them self directed in compliance: I think it is by understanding the microbe,” Haberstich said.
And it’s by realizing we will never win a war to eliminate microbes -- “There are more of them than us,” Haberstich said. “In fact there are more microbes than cells in our bodies.”
But by being smarter -- and safer -- we can keep the upper hand.