When you put one of the toughest bugs on the planet in a match-up with some of the most delicate fresh foods, it doesn’t take a Vegas mathematician to figure the odds are against the food making it through a sterilization process undamaged.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-image-romaine-lettuce-image9630731Among the most delicate and most prone to carry foodborne illnesses are leafy greens. Among the most difficult to kill bugs is norovirus. But a microbiologist at the University of Minnesota-St. Paul is working on a solution.

As it turns out, norovirus, aka the stomach bug or the cruise ship blues, can’t stand up to cold plasma treatment and researcher Hamada Aboubakr has shown that at least one leafy green can survive the sterilization process with no apparent damage.

Aboubakr and colleagues exposed romaine lettuce leaves to a cold plasma treatment after they had been intentionally contaminated with norovirus. The same treatment was also used on stainless steel surfaces similar to those found in salad packing plants.

After only five minutes of cold plasma treatment, ions in the plasma wiped out about 99 percent of norovirus particles. The results of the research project were presented earlier this month at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology Biothreats.

Knocking norovirus off of fresh produce and other delicate fresh foods would likely make a dent in the more than 20 million nor infections that hit people in the U.S. every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States.

Encouraged by their success with the romaine-norovirus demonstration, the researchers are testing their cold plasma device on other pathogens, including Hepatitis A.

Aboubakr has said he hopes to adapt the technology for use in restaurants, on cruise ships and in the produce aisles of grocery stores.

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