The Washington Post and msnbc.com this week are publishing a major national investigation into food safety in America, conducted by student journalists from five universities participating in the national Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Twenty-seven News21 fellows from Arizona State University, University of Maryland, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska and Harvard University collaborated to produce the project, which examines food safety issues through in-depth stories, photos, video, graphics and interactive databases.

The stories being published by The Washington Post this week detail the widespread incidence and many causes of foodborne illness in the United States and show how a combination of industry practices and gaps in government oversight leaves consumers vulnerable. Earlier, the Post published two breaking news stories from the News21 national project about food safety at farmers markets and a corporate challenge to the way federal and state governments investigate foodborne illness outbreaks.

Among the News21 stories featured on msnbc.com are an examination of the dangers posed by seafood, how less than 2 percent of imported food is inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at ports of entry and why food at farmers markets may not be as safe as consumers think.

The project also appears on the websites of News21 and the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

The News21 program, funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, promotes in-depth, interactive and innovative investigative journalism at journalism schools across the country. It is headquartered at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Last year’s national News21 investigation on transportation safety, “Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America,” was featured in the Post and on the websites of msnbc.com and the Center for Public Integrity. It drew more than 5.2 million page views in its first 18 days – the largest distribution of university-produced journalism in history. The project was a finalist in the Online News Association investigative reporting contest in the professional category.

"News21 proves that top journalism schools and top teachers can produce journalism as good as any in America today," said Eric Newton, senior adviser to Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen. "News leaders and major news organizations agree – because they use News21's journalism."

Susan King, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, said the national News21 project “proves that deep learning about a topic and good digital story telling are a powerful combination. These students under the leadership of experienced professors have produced strong reporting about an important topic and done it with ingenuity and in innovative ways. Students have benefited, but so have readers and viewers.”

The 2011 food safety investigation’s findings included:

• Foodborne illnesses sicken one person in six – 48 million – in the United States each year. Of those, 128,000 require hospitalization and 3,000 die.

• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration anticipates that 24 million agency-regulated products will enter the United States in 2011, but it expects to inspect less than 2 percent of them.

• Nearly 3 million Americans are sickened by contaminated meat and poultry each year. Poultry carrying the salmonella pathogen is routinely sold to consumers with the expectation that they’ll protect themselves from infections.

• Even though small farms lobbied Congress successfully for an exemption from stringent new federal food safety regulations, there is no scientific evidence that their products are safer than those produced by large farms.

News21 students began this year's reporting project with a teleconferenced spring semester seminar tying together classes at ASU, Maryland and Nebraska. The students researched food safety issues and interviewed experts in the field. Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and the Cronkite School's Weil Family Professor of Journalism, led the seminar from the Cronkite School and coordinated the program.