A public-private consortium has been created to investigate the potential food safety and quality issues posed by microbial contaminants in plant-based food products.

Partners in the project will look at microbes that are common in plant-based ingredients, their ability to survive processing, and the risk of growth and toxin production in foods containing such ingredients.

The aim is to help reduce food waste and ensure food safety, by filling knowledge gaps, generating better predictive models for assessing microbial risk and identifying critical control points.

Research organizations NIZO food research, Wageningen University & Research, and HAS Green Academy are working with several companies including Ripple Foods, The Coca-Cola Company, SPX Flow, Tetra Pak, Bel, Arla Foods, Yili, HP Hood LLC, FrieslandCampina and Cosun. The project is supported financially by Topsector Agri & Food.

Efforts will provide insight into the levels and types of microbial contaminants in more than 80 plant-based ingredients.

Look for microbes in plant-based ingredients
Consumers are including more plant-based foods in their diet, leading to a rise in the development and production of alternatives to dairy or meat products. Such products can be contaminated and cause outbreaks, with one example being the Jay & Joy cheese alternatives linked to five illnesses in France and one each in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

New plant ingredients can contain unknown types and levels of microbes, and there is a significant gap in knowledge about the risks of these contaminants, said project partners. Many plant-based proteins come from crops that are sourced close to the soil and can be contaminated with a range of organisms.

Microbes can also be introduced during harvesting and storage, or the manufacturing process. This impacts the design of efficient processing conditions and the ability to carry out effective troubleshooting when microbiological contamination occurs in finished products.

Understanding and predicting the potential food safety and quality risks from microbial contamination in new plant protein ingredients requires knowledge of the levels, types, and behaviors of microbes, and the impact of formulation, processing, and storage conditions.

Data will be used to develop microbial predictive models. These will be verified in real products to identify risks and used to define strategies to prevent microbiological spoilage or safety issues.

“Safe food is critical for public health, but we also need to minimize product recalls preventing downgrading or destruction of valuable foods. New developments in food production and the protein transition raise fresh and unknown challenges that can hamper these objectives,” said Robyn Eijlander, project manager and microbiology expert at NIZO.

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