The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Fort Pierce, FL, develop a small plastic pouch to make food safer.

Sanitizers are often used to kill microbes on produce. Food processors in the U.S. add chlorine to wash water in produce packing operations as a preventative measure, and in Europe, chlorine dioxide is sometimes pumped into storage rooms to sanitize produce. However, chlorine dioxide packaged in a pouch is a new approach.

Chlorine dioxide gas kills harmful pathogens such as E. coli, which nests on the surfaces of fruits and vegetables.

Jinhe Bai, a plant pathologist at ARS’s research laboratory in Florida stated that E. coli and other pathogens on the surface of produce can cause illness if the produce isn’t thoroughly washed or cooked. Bai’s research at the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory aims to reduce pathogen contamination of produce.

On a global scale, Bai said more than 25 percent of the fruits and vegetables produced are lost after harvest because of spoilage from microbial contamination.

Bai and colleagues have been working with Worrell Water Technologies to manufacture the produce pathogen packets.

In preliminary research, ARS found that chlorine dioxide gas could be released too quickly, causing chemical burns on produce. The pouch was redesigned with a semi-permeable membrane that vents the gas at a slower rate. The pouches are smaller than a credit card in size, and can be packed into shipping containers. The pouches cost a few cents, and only one to three are needed per crate or carton, according to information from ARS. The manufacturer plans to market the pouches to produce packers and wholesalers in the U.S. and overseas.

When Bai and his colleagues put the pouches into cartons of grapefruit using typical packing, shipping and storage conditions, they found 10 times fewer bacterial and fungal pathogens than on grapefruit stored without pouches, according to research. A panel of ARS volunteers in Fort Pierce found that the treatments didn’t change the appearance or taste of the grapefruit.

Other laboratory tests showed a 100,000-fold reduction in E. coli levels in inoculated grape tomatoes stored with the pouches, according to Bai.

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