Food processing

Food scientist wins grant to study safety of low-moisture food processing | News

Helping to keep dry foods safe for consumption is the goal of an Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station researcher who recently received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Jennifer Acuff, an assistant professor of food safety and microbiology in the Agriculture System Division at the University of Arkansas, received the grant to learn more about the amount of moisture needed for bacteria to survive in low-moisture foods. The research will help develop fundamental knowledge about how bacteria persist in low humidity food processing environments.

“We don’t really know how much water or nutrients are needed to sustain these contaminating populations, but we do know that they can persist for a long time in a dry environment,” Acuff said. “Our goals for the grant are to develop protocols for a laboratory that simulate these ‘persistent populations’ so that we can study how to prevent their formation or mitigate risk once they form in a low-pressure food processing environment. humidity.”

The results of his two-year research grant will provide information and recommendations for processors to improve the safety of low-moisture foods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Food and Drug Administration have reported several cases of foodborne illness outbreaks from low-moisture foods. The most recent was Cronobacter sakazakii infections in powdered infant formula this year. The CDC said Cronobacter infections may have contributed to the cause of death of two patients.

“Many low-moisture foods are also considered ready-to-eat, which puts consumers at particular risk because they don’t expect the foods to be unsafe and won’t do anything that could kill pathogens. , like baking,” Acuff said.

Nuts, dried fruits, powdered drinks, dry pet foods, seasonings, and some candies and snacks are just a few examples of low-water foods that could benefit from research.

Hundreds of illnesses, sometimes resulting in hospitalizations, have been reported from the consumption of contaminated foods with low water content infected with Salmonella and Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (E. coli). Listeria monocytogenes has been the cause of recalls, according to CDC and FDA reports. In recent years, the agency has reported foodborne illnesses caused by pathogens in several brands of bakery flour, a soy nut butter, a dried coconut product and a cake mix, among others.

Acuff said cleaning and sanitizing low-moisture food processing facilities is difficult because of the need to limit exposure to water and moisture. When water is introduced into a low-humidity food processing area for cleaning, Acuff said it can either introduce foodborne pathogens or keep the pathogens alive.

Dried food producers and low-moisture food processors are always looking for strategies and methods to keep their manufacturing environments clean and hygienic without water, Acuff added.

The research is designed to gather data that will enable future collaborative research on cleaning, sanitizing and processing in a low humidity food environment.

As part of the study, Acuff will examine how cross-contamination can occur from persistent bacterial populations to uncontaminated products in the presence of limited water and nutrients. Additionally, Acuff will identify a suitable surrogate microorganism that is non-pathogenic but can mimic the behavior of a pathogen, so that laboratory results can be validated in food processing plants without introducing a pathogen. in the environment.

Acuff joined the University of Arkansas Agriculture System Division and Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences in 2020 after earning his doctorate in food safety and microbiology from Virginia Tech University. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Abilene Christian University in Texas and a master’s degree in food microbiology from Kansas State University. His research focuses on the reduction of pathogens in food at the post-harvest level through prevention and intervention.

Acuff’s teaching position allows her to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students. She also has a cooperative extension service appointment through which she engages with the community on food security issues.

Acuff said his lab focuses on the development and application of interventions and practices for the food industry to improve low-moisture food safety. Some of his work focuses on thermal inactivation of Salmonella from dairy milk powders, decontamination of pecans contaminated with Shiga toxin-producing E. coli, and inactivation of pathogens on spices.