More than $5 million in grants from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will support a major research partnership led by the University of California-Davis, aimed at reducing bacterial contamination in produce.
The largest of the three funded projects in the grant is a $4.7 million initiative to reduce foodborne illness by developing new fresh-produce processing technologies. “Our overall goal is to address the issue of cross-contamination,” says Nitin Nitin, PhD, an associate professor in the departments of food science and technology and biological and agricultural engineering, the initiative’s lead investigation, who explains that the project has four key components:
- Improvement of washing systems design. “Washing systems using sanitizers like chlorine only reduce microbial count by a small amount,” he says. “We believe that modifying mechanical design of the systems can reduce the microbes being transferred from the washer to the produce.”
- Development of biosensors to optimize the use of sanitizers. “This is a big challenge for the produce washing industry: Depending on the produce type, the amount of sanitizer needed can vary quite a bit,” says Dr. Nitin. “It’s also an environmental issue in terms of water recycling, especially given the water situation in California and many parts of the country.”
- Development of biosensors to detect microbes in the produce environment. “Current biosensors are only useful in the lab environment and take hours to get a result. We want a biosensor that is useful in the field at point of use.”
- Development of a plasma-based, chemical-free approach to sanitizing produce.
“We’ll be looking at reducing hazard in all aspects of washing produce, at each point in the process,” Dr. Nitin says.
UC-Davis will be working in collaboration with Rutgers and Drexel Universities on this project. Two other projects in the grant focus on blocking bacterial spoilage in fruits and vegetables, and reducing harmful bacteria in leafy vegetables.
Shaw writes frequently about science, medicine, and health while serving as a regular contributor on notable medical publications. Reach her at [email protected].