Edible films prevent, kill bacteria in tests

By Don Schrack

Source of Article:  http://thepacker.com/icms/_dtaa2/content/wrapper.asp?alink=2009-13363-13.asp&stype=topnews&fb=

(Jan. 7, 1:35 p.m.) Researchers at a California facility of the U.S. Department of Agriculture may be on the verge of a food safety breakthrough for fresh produce. If the research is successful, some of the glory will have to go to herbs.

“We’ve been working with natural antimicrobial-containing edible films made out of fruits and vegetables primarily,” said research leader Tara McHugh at the Agriculture Research Service’s Western Regional Research Center in Albany, Calif. “Then we add different essential oils and extracts of essential oils that can act as natural antimicrobial agents against E. coli, salmonella and other pathogens.”

The research team is more than two years into a three-year grant project that came about, in part, due to the 2006 E. coli foodborne illness outbreak traced to bagged California spinach.

Not to be confused with films used in fresh produce packaging, the film being developed by the researchers is more like a sheet of paper, McHugh said. The testing began, she said, by putting pathogens in petri dishes and covering the bacteria with the film. The next step was to place spinach inoculated with E. coli in the Petri dishes and to apply the film to see if it would kill the bacteria, she said.

“All of those results were promising, and now we’re moving into the actual food product applications,” McHugh said. “One of them will be the bagged lettuces.”

In some cases, the antimicrobial film prevented the growth of the bacteria, she said, and in other cases it prevented the growth and killed the pathogens that existed.

Commercial applications

How soon the antimicrobial film would be available to the industry — assuming the results are positive — may boil down to dollars and cents issues.

“Some of what we do will depend on funding and our partnerships with companies,” McHugh said. “I would hope that that within the next year we’d have some results of actual food applications. That’s our goal.”

The California laboratory is the only ARS facility engaged in research aimed at developing the edible, antimicrobial film, she said.

“We work with many different companies and commodities groups, but on this particular project, we haven’t got there yet,” McHugh said.

If sufficient funding is obtained, the film could be in commercial production sometime in 2010, she said.

“We’ve transferred the basic film manufacturing technology into commercialization already,” McHugh said. “It’s just a matter of adding the anti-microbes to those films.”

The antimicrobial agents are readily available. Researchers have focused on compounds from a variety of herbs and spices such as oregano, lemon grass, cinnamon, clove and allspice, McHugh said. The bacteria-fighting film could be integrated into the manufacture of packaging film or bags, she said, or could even be used as flakes.

“Some edible film is already available commercially, but they don’t contain natural antimicrobial agents,” McHugh said.

A carrot film is used as an alternative to seaweed wrap for some Asian food items, she said, and a similar film is used with some meats, such as hams.

Public acceptance and good taste are potential advantages to the edible film.

“It really could offer a good benefit to consumers from both a safety and a nutrition perspective,” McHugh said. “For grower-shippers, the film would provide additional protection.”


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