Produce Safety a Zap Away?

by Chris Carroll | Illustration by Matthew Laumann

While thorough washing can head off some of the foodborne illnesses that sicken tens of millions of people and kill several thousand yearly in the United States, a less-than-perfect cleaning can make the problem worse, according to a UMD expert.

“It makes produce look appealing and removes dirt, but if it is not done properly, water becomes a carrier for this small amount of bacteria to spread to a larger batch of produce,” says Rohan Tikekar, assistant professor of nutrition and food science.

What if there were a better way?

Tikekar and colleagues are working on technology so food producers and even consumers can pop produce into a microwave-like device for a minute, effectively giving it a bath in low-temperature plasma that kills 99 percent of surface bacteria while avoiding excess water use.

The researchers, including co-author Gottlieb Oehrlein, professor of materials science and engineering with a joint appointment with the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics, and lead author Pingshan Luan Ph.D. ’18, describe the device in a paper published in Plasma Processes and Polymers.

They’re now looking at how the device affects nutritional value. Because it only works on a thin layer at the surface, they expect little impact, and consumers could soon have a safety measure that Oehrlein says would be as easy as “flipping a light switch on and off.”


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