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Scientists Study Better Ways to Sanitize Fruit and Vegetables

By Jim Core
March 11, 2002

Agricultural Research Service scientists in Wyndmoor, Pa., are studying commercial-type washing and sanitizing equipment that could do a better job of reducing bacterial populations on fruit and vegetable surfaces.

The washing and sanitizing equipment is located within a containment chamber inside a unique Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) pilot plant at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) in Wyndmoor. The plant will be used to improve conventional produce-cleaning methods and to develop new approaches for removing or inactivating human pathogens associated with fresh produce, according to food technologist Gerald M. Sapers and microbiologist Bassam A. Annous. They work at ERRC’s Food Safety Intervention Technologies Research Unit.

The washing equipment and a small-scale prototype of the containment chamber were designed, built and validated by a collaborating team of scientists and engineers from Pennsylvania State University and ERRC. Early tests with the new system were very successful.

Chlorine and other produce sanitizers used by packinghouses to reduce microbial levels are not able to penetrate the crevices in produce skin. Sapers and his team are developing and evaluating new, commercial-type processes for decontaminating fresh and minimally-processed fruits and vegetables. Effective technology can then be transferred to produce packing and processing industries.

New washing and sanitizing treatments are developed in the laboratory before being tested in the pilot plant. For example, experimental hydrogen peroxide and hot water treatments have been applied to apples in a dip tank at different temperatures. Temperatures exceeding 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) could not be used without causing discoloration.

Other experimental methods being studied include steam treatments, applying sanitizing solutions under vacuum, treating inoculated apples and other produce with antimicrobial vapors and using an abrasive paste to grind pathogens off produce.

A more detailed story on this research is available in the March issue of Agricultural Research magazine, available on the World Wide Web.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

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