Agriculture - - Research - BY DEN­NIS O’BRIEN

SOME­TIMES it takes time to find a win­ning for­mula. That’s how it was with First Step+ 10, ac­cord­ing to Joshua Gurtler, an Agri­cul­tural Re­search Ser­vice sci­en­tist at the East­ern Re­gional Re­search Cen­ter, in Wyn­d­moor, Penn­syl­va­nia. Gurtler and his col­lab­o­ra­tors at Na­tureSeal, Inc., tested hun­dreds of an­timi­cro­bial for­mu­la­tions, in a se­ries of care­fully de­signed lab­o­ra­tory ex­per­i­ments, be­fore they found the right com­bi­na­tion of lac­tic acid, fruit acids, and hy­dro­gen per­ox­ide for a wash that re­duces the risk of food-borne pathogens con­tam­i­nat­ing fresh pro­duce in food pro­cess­ing op­er­a­tions.

“It’s an ex­act­ing process, find­ing the right or­ganic com­pounds and for­mu­lat­ing them into a so­lu­tion that will per­form ef­fec­tively,” says Gurtler.

Escherichia coli, Lis­te­ria, Sal­mo­nella and other food-borne pathogens sicken ap­prox­i­mately 48 mil­lion peo­ple each year, or about 1 in 6 Amer­i­cans. Food-borne pathogens caused an es­ti­mated 4,200 hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and 80 deaths in 2013, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion. A re­cent U.S. out­break as­so­ci­ated with cu­cum­bers sick­ened over 765 peo­ple in 36 states and killed 4.

First Step+ 10 is de­signed to re­duce those num­bers and is ex­pected to be used in flumes and rinse tanks to wash fresh pro­duce. Sev­eral Na­tureSeal con­stituent pro­ces­sors have al­ready ex­pressed an in­ter­est in us­ing it, Gurtler says.

Along with re­cently se­cur­ing ap­proval from the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FDA), Gurtler and Na­tureSeal have filed a pa­tent ap­pli­ca­tion and pre­sented find­ings at sci­en­tific meet­ings. Na­tureSeal, based in West­port, Con­necti­cut, al­ready mar­kets an anti-brown­ing wash de­vel­oped by an­other ARS team in the 1990s for sliced ap­ples and 18 other types of pro­duce.

To save wa­ter, some food pro­ces­sors re­use wash wa­ter, a prac­tice that can con­tam­i­nate pro­duce in sub­se­quent washes. “Our num­ber-one con­cern in com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions is cross-con­tam­i­na­tion from the wash wa­ter and pathogen lev­els,” Gurtler says.

To test the win­ning for­mula, Gurtler in­oc­u­lated fresh-cut ap­ples, baby spinach, can­taloupe rind, and cherry toma­toes with highly re­sis­tant out­break strains of E. coli, Lis­te­ria, and Sal­mo­nella. He soaked them in the wash and then mea­sured pathogen lev­els in the wash wa­ter and on the pro­duce. The an­timi­cro­bial wash re­duced pathogen lev­els on the pro­duce up to 99.99 per­cent. It also rid the wash wa­ter of 100 per­cent of the pathogens, mak­ing it safer to re­use.

The wash can be shipped in con­cen­trated form. Spe­cific con­cen­tra­tions and treat­ment time used in a wash cy­cle will de­pend on the pro­duce be­ing treated and other fac­tors, Gurtler says. But it will cut back on wa­ter waste be­cause pro­ces­sors won’t have to re­place wa­ter in their tanks as of­ten.

ARS re­search is lead­ing to new ways of keep­ing fresh-cut pro­duce fresh and safe to the last bite. (Photo by Peggy Greb)

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