University of Missouri research show promise for improving food safety

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Tiny particles could become a huge weapon in food safety, according to researchers at the University of Missouri.

They have discovered that zinc oxide nanoparticles inhibit the growth of E. coli 0157, a source of foodborne illness, as well as two fungi that affect fruit.

"These results suggest that zinc oxide nanoparticles could potentially be used as an effective postharvest antimicrobial agent in agricultural and food safety applications," said Mengshi Lin, an assistant professor of food science.

Nanoparticles are those less than 100 nanometers in diameter. Those used in the researchers' work were about 70 nanometers in diameter roughly a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair, and small enough to penetrate their targets.

The research showed that even lower concentrations of zinc oxide, which is inexpensive and widely available, inhibited the growth of both bacteria and fungi, showing potential to stem foodborne illnesses.

"The  use of nanoparticles has received a lot of attention for a wide range of applications, from engineering to human health," said Alex Yang, a recent food science master's graduate. "Nanotechnology has not been widely applied to food science, but this is a promising area."

In recent years, investigators have traced foodborne outbreaks to spinach, peppers, melons and peanut butter.

The outbreaks have sickened hundreds of Americans and proved fatal in some cases. The produce and food industries have lost millions in sales, and government agencies have used precious resources to investigate and track the causes.

The outbreaks have prompted calls for a revamping of the country's food safety system and even a centralized food safety agency.

But most scientists agree that the best way to tackle foodborne illness is at the source, and the Missouri researchers believe they may have found one method. The next step, they say, is to apply the particles to fruits, possibly by spraying.

"Our research is to study the application of this technology to food science," Lin said, "and also its safe, responsible deployment."


Publication date: 4/29/2009



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