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Improving Food Safety

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Various processing technologies are available to ensure the safety of the food supply, as well as meet consumers’ desire for minimally processed, clean-label, and low-cost food.

Foodborne pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes cause millions of illnesses every year, ranging from mild and inconvenient to extremely serious and even life-threatening (1, 2). These and other pathogens can be traced to a wide variety of foods, from shellfish, meats, and poultry to fresh and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables. Although environmental controls are commonly used during cultivation and in post-harvest washing and sanitizing treatments (typically chlorine sanitizer-based), the continued presence of contamination highlights the need for additional control steps (3).

For decades, scientists at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Eastern Regional Research Center have worked to improve food safety and shelf life while retaining quality and nutritional value. The USDA’s food safety research has addressed key aspects of efficacy, scalability, and practicality (4). This work has expanded the suite of tools available to food processors to include:

  • irradiation
  • antimicrobial chemical treatments (e.g., ozonation, chlorine dioxide)
  • biocontrols (e.g., predators, competitors, antagonists, bacteriophages)
  • electromagnetic processes (e.g., microwave, infrared, radio-frequency)
  • cold plasma processes
  • ultraviolet, pulsed, and high-intensity monochromatic light treatment
  • high-pressure processes
  • flash steam treatments.

This article provides an overview of some of these key food safety technologies and discusses their drivers, including consumer desire for minimal processing, clean labels, low costs, and sustainability.

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