As a food safety professional, providing safe, quality food to your customers is your top priority. While there are many different pieces of the food safety puzzle, cleaning fresh produce before it makes to consumers is a continual challenge. Currently, the processes farmers and distributors rely on depend on chemical washes and good food handling training. Unfortunately, standard practices are not always enough to eliminate the risk of things like salmonella, listeria, or norovirus.

Why Cold Plasma?

One of the challenges to providing truly clean product to consumers is that to kill the most potential hazards, heat is required. Of course, heat does not exactly mix with fresh produce, which leads us to our current dilemma. However, researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, PA have discovered a new options: cold plasma. Though it has the same germ killing properties as heat would, cold plasma is, as the name suggests, cold. Because the cold plasma process does not require heat, facilities could use it even on delicate produce like blueberries, as were the subject of the researchers’ tests.

How Cold Plasma Works

Plasma is the fourth state of matter (after solid, liquid, and gas). Plasma appears as a plume of charged electrons and ions when gas molecules are broken apart. In the food sanitizing process, a small device that looks like a “purple blow torch” is used to direct the plasma at the produces.

Because heat generation is an issue and could damage produce, researchers needed to find a way to create plasma but not heat. By injecting cooler air, at room temperature, into the process, they could create plasma without applying heat to the food and thereby damaging it.

What This Could Mean for the Future

Fresh produce has always presented a challenge in terms of growing and transporting. With an increasing demand for organic products, shelf lives are even shorter and the motivation to move produce even faster from the ground to the grocery shelf has also increased. Of course, as the critical processes of picking and cleaning produce is sped up, there is always more room for error. Cold plasma treatments, which have so far been shown to eliminate up to 99.99% of norovirus, could improve food safety without acting as a hindrance on the shipping and sales process.

Cold plasma is a long way from becoming mainstream and useful for large scale food manufacturing facilities. However, as a food QA and safety professional, it is imperative that you keep up to date on the latest experiments and possibilities in your field. As long as there is food to eat, there will be new ways for scientists, researchers, and food safety managers to keep it clean and safe to eat.