Pressure kills bugs. Anyone who’s ever stepped on a creepy crawly and heard that familiar crunch knows that.

Cornell high-pressure pathogen killerIt takes a lot more pressure than a pair of penny loafers, though, to kill microscopic pathogens like E. coli and Listeria, and Cornell University is proving its heavy-weight status as a food safety leader with its new high-pressure food processor.

Installed in January at Cornell’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY, the Hiperbaric 55 machine is the first commercial-grade processor in the U.S. to be installed within a Biohazard Level 2 facility. That  means researchers will be able to introduce pathogens to foods and test how well the pressure system kills them.

“High-pressure food processing takes ready-to-eat foods, already in their final packages, surrounds the packages with water, then subjects them to isostatic pressure up to 87,000 pounds per square inch. For comparison, that’s more than six times the pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest ocean trench on Earth,” according to a news release.

Food science professor Randy Worobo is overseeing the new validation center that houses the high-pressure processing unit. The center is part of the Institute for Food Safety at Cornell University, established in 2015 with $2 million in state funding.

Cornell hiperbaric high-pressure pathogen killer“The food industry is adapting high-pressure processing very rapidly because it retains the fresh-like character of the food products while guaranteeing safety by inactivating foodborne pathogens,” Worobo said in the release.

High-pressure treatment is especially suited to fresh, packaged, ready-to-eat foods because unlike heat treatment to kill pathogens or chemical applications to control spoilage because it does not alter the flavor or texture of the food. As the ready-to-eat (RTE) market continues to grow food manufacturers and retailers are seeking methods to ensure food safety. The USDA’s Economic Research Service reports RTE foods grew at twice the rate of other grocery products in the mid-2000s.

“Because high-pressure processing is such a new technology, the federal regulatory agencies are not that familiar with it, and what they expect is for companies to have validation studies that actually demonstrate that under this pressure, for this time, with this food, that you get a consistent pathogen reduction that meets regulatory guidelines,” Worobo said. “Cornell is setting the standards that companies will use to bring fresh, high-quality foods to market in a safe way.”

Corporations stepped up to help pay for the high-pressure equipment and research at Cornell. The processor was financed through public and private grants, including $600,000 from New York state and contributions from private companies Wegmans grocery chain, LiDestri, Suja and the unit’s manufacturer, Hiperbaric.

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