The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded an Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher a $200,000 grant to learn more about how much moisture is required to allow bacterial survival in low-moisture foods. 

The institute recognizes the dangers of pathogens in low-moisture foods as just two months ago the FDA confirmed five different strains of Cronobacter sakazakii bacteria at an Abbott Nutrition plant in Sturgis, MI, that makes infant formula that was linked to four illnesses and two deaths.

Jennifer Acuff, the awarded researcher and assistant professor in food safety and microbiology with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, says her research will help develop foundational knowledge on how bacteria persist in low-moisture food processing environments.

“We don’t really know how much water or nutrients are required to sustain these contaminating populations, but we know they can persist in the dry environment for a long time,” Acuff said. 

According to Acuff, the goal of the grant is to develop protocols for a laboratory that simulate these persistent bacteria so that they can study how to prevent their formation or mitigate the risks once they do form in a low-moisture food processing environment.

“Many low-moisture foods are also considered ready-to-eat, so this puts consumers at a particular risk because they are not expecting the food to be unsafe and will not be doing anything to it that could kill pathogens, such as cooking,” Acuff said. 

Acuff’s research is designed to gather data that will allow collaborative research in the future on cleaning, sanitizing and processing in a low-moisture food environment.

Acuff and her lab will examine how cross-contamination can occur from the persistent bacterial populations to the non-contaminated products in the presence of limited water and nutrients. 

Acuff will identify a suitable surrogate microorganism that is nonpathogenic but can mimic the behavior of a pathogen, so that the laboratory results can be validated in food processing plants without introducing a pathogen to the environment.

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