You might not see bugs and bacteria on fresh fruit and vegetables, but they’re there. Texas A&M food engineers are experimenting with new technologies to eliminate these threats to keep our produce safe and healthy.
Many Americans assume fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets are safe, wholesome foods that are good for us and won’t make us sick. This can be a deadly assumption. Despite rigorous national standards, spinach infected with Escherichia coli and salmonella-tainted tomatoes have hit the market, in recent years, sickening more than 1,000 people in the United States.
But food engineering researchers at Texas A&M are perfecting several methods to ensure the safety of fresh produce: electron beam, or e-beam, irradiation, which kills disease-causing organisms that survive conventional decontamination methods, as well as several advanced packaging techniques.
“Irradiating produce reaches bacteria inside the vegetables, not only the organisms that are on the surface,” says food engineer Dr. Rosana Moreira, professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. “Irradiation kills bacteria without damaging produce or making the product unsafe to eat.”
The Centers for Disease Control says that food irradiation holds great potential for preventing many foodborne diseases in meat, poultry, fresh produce and other foods without harming the nutritional value of food or making it hazardous to human health.
Moreira, Dr. Elena Castell-Perez and Dr. Carmen Gomes are working to calculate the best methods of using electron beam irradiation to eliminate dangerous bacteria and maintain the nutritional content of fresh produce.
Electron beams are streams of high-energy electrons. The beams are not radioactive, and they can be turned on and off like your TV or a flashlight. Applying ionizing radiation to food was introduced more than 100 years ago. Food processors in 50 countries rely upon irradiation to make their food safer, but it’s fallen out of favor in the United States — believed largely the result of consumer fear and lack of understanding of “radiation” and its diverse applications.
“The idea of eating food that has been irradiated concerns some consumers,” Moreira says. “But irradiated food is completely safe, and in some ways may be better than food that has not been irradiated.”
This is an excerpt from Texas A&M food engineers make advance in food safety.
You can support Texas A&M food safety research with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.
Monica Delisa, Assistant Vice President for Development, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences