AU researcher receives grant to study moisture levels to protect dry foods from bacteria

Bacteria in food sickens millions of people around the world every year, costs billions of dollars in economic losses and, in rare cases, even leads to death. An Arkansas food safety researcher hopes to find new ways to keep dry foods safe.

Jennifer Acuff, an assistant professor of food safety and microbiology in the system division at the University of Arkansas, recently received a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and of farming.

She received the grant to learn more about how much moisture is 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.

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