Produce Safety a Zap Away?
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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