A litany of food scares
A litany of food scares–and rules for organic produce–have pushed the industry to seek new solutions for food safety.
Perfectly sanitized dimpled spinach leaves or tender greens like baby lettuce has been high on the wish list of the $3.1-billion bagged salad industry since its inception. The race to develop better wash systems for cleaning took off in earnest in 2006, after the high profile E. coli O157:H7 outbreak linked to bagged spinach killed five people and sickened more than 200, leaving the leafy green industry with a black eye and an ego-bruising $350-million price tag in recalls and lost sales.
Advances to date in cleaning salad greens have mostly centered on chlorine-based washes and plenty of testing throughout the supply chain. But for organic salad producers, such as Earthbound Farm, a wash additive may not be an option because it has not been approved for organic use. So the company teamed up with the Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) at the Illinois Institute of Technology to look for solutions outside the bag. One of the most promising: high-power ultrasound.
When applied to leafy greens, high-powered ultrasound creates millions of tiny bubbles along a leaf’s surface. As they burst at a rate of a thousand times a second, they provide high-energy shock waves that can get into the leaf’s nooks and crannies to dislodge pathogens, which are then whisked away in the sanitized wash. (Earthbound is looking at citrus and peracetic acid–based sanitizers, both sanctioned for use with organic products.)
“Mostly we’re after E. coli O157:H7; norovirus that causes winter vomiting, and we’ll continue working with salmonella and Listeria as well,” says IFSH director, Robert Brackett.
Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity at Earthbound, says they hope to move the equipment out of the lab and apply it to their process within the next few months. “That’s assuming the pilot studies between now and then are successful and show we don’t end up with pureed lettuce at the end of the line. That would be a deal breaker,” Daniels adds.
It’s not the first time high-powered ultrasound has been used as a sanitizer. The wine industry has used it (pdf) to clean oak barrels since 2006. Employing ultrasound, however, does not guarantee sterile produce, and Earthbound says they will not put forward such a claim.
But early results about its effectiveness in eliminating pathogens are promising—and come at a particularly key time.