North Carolina State University, in partnership with the University of Tennessee, has secured a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve the safety of organic produce.
The group’s study, “Alternative Post-harvest Washing Solutions to Enhance the Microbial Safety and Quality of Organic Fresh Produce,” began in fall 2012. It is set to be a four-year, multidisciplinary project.
Qixin Zhong, an associate professor in the University of Tennessee Department of Food Science and Technology, leads the initiative, according to a news release.
The group hopes to find effective treatment options in the form of organic antimicrobials, such as organic essential oils.
Economic feasibility and the shelf life of various produce items will also be considered, according to the release.
In March, N.C. State University hired Chen Jiang, a graduate student, to assist Penelope Perkins-Veazie with the postharvest research.
“Our main objective is to come up with organic alternatives to chlorine for washing produce while still eliminating pathogens like E. coli and salmonella,” Perkins-Veazie said.
“But a particularly exciting aspect of this research for me is the potential for discovering unexpected benefits, like finding health-promoting bioactive compounds in produce like tomatoes or cantaloupes that we never knew were there,” she said.
The two have begun trials to characterize postharvest changes in spinach, lettuce, tomato and cantaloupe in relation to water or chlorinated water rinses, said Justin Moore, extension communications, N.C. State University Plants for Human Health Institute.
The study will focus on visible signs of aging such as wilting or loss of color, in addition to internal changes such as loss of chlorophyll or gain in beta carotene in cantaloupe. The research also includes information on potential loss of sugars and organic acids.
“In the near future, Jiang and Perkins-Veazie will begin trials with essential oils, most likely cinnamon and thyme, which will involve simple fine mist sprays to wash the organic produce,” Moore said in an e-mail.
The researchers plan to look for potential negative changes, such as accelerated yellowing or changes in smell.
“The essential oil research data will be compared with the chlorinated water trials to illuminate key differences in postharvest behavior, which will help the team evaluate the efficacy of the essential oil rinses on produce, Moore said.