Ozone technology flushes out produce contamination
BY HANK HOGAN
COACHELLA, Calif.—If Peter Piper picked a pepper today, he'd have a hard time shipping it directly from the field. Consumers and retail grocery chains are demanding produce that's pathogen-free. There are also governmental directives mandating cleaner food. As a result, pepper pickers and other produce packers have had to change their methods.
"It's very hard to just field pack out of the field anymore," says Abel Balderrama, operations manager for Prime Time Intl. (www.primetimeproduce.com), which markets premium quality fruits and vegetables, such as peppers.
The trend toward cleaner produce is increasing the need for contamination control. So, companies like Prime Time are turning to new technologies, such as an ozonated water wash from eFoodSafety.com, Inc. (Prescott, Ariz.;www.e-foodsafety.com).
Citing Department of Agriculture statistics, analysts at The Research Works, Inc., an equity firm, report that less than two percent of produce reaches consumers pathogen-free. That, the analysts note in an independent report commissioned by eFoodSafety, means there's a large potential market for sanitization treatments.
Before using the ozonated water wash, Prime Time had sanitized its produce using chlorine-based processes. But as Balderrama notes, chlorine tends to outgas from the water—a potential health and safety issue. On the other hand, the company had to do something more than a simple water wash.
"You just can't put water on it; you make the pepper decay," says Balderrama. After investigating an acidic water wash, Prime Time turned to an ozone treatment running about 1.5 parts per million concentration versus the 150 or so ppm used for chlorine-based systems.
According to Rich Speidell, chief operating officer for eFoodSafety, when compared to chlorine-based washes, ozone treated water has a much faster and higher kill rate of bacteria and pathogens. He also points out that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ozone for perishable products only a few years ago.
Attack and retreat
Generated on-site by eFoodSafety's equipment, the ozone concentration in the water is controlled by the company's patent-pending vortex technology. For 15 to 20 seconds, the generated ozone attacks bacteria, pathogens, fungi and diseases. The ozone then transforms back into benign oxygen.
One of the reasons Prime Time chose ozone is that the process attacks fungi and diseases that destroy peppers. The result of the treatment is a pepper that's both pathogen-free and has a longer shelf life. Balderrama says that ozone, "… is specific on some organisms that attack peppers, so that makes sense for us to go with the ozone rather than anything else."
According to Balderrama, Prime Time's testing indicates that decay in a treated pepper runs as much as 10 to 15 percent less than in an untreated vegetable. Longer shelf life translates to better produce for the consumer and a healthier bottom line along the agricultural food chain.
This longer shelf life can also apply to treated meat and poultry as well as produce. "Our studies show that the use of ozone, by killing bacteria, certainly increases shelf life of product," says eFoodSafety's Speidell. "Obviously, without bacteria in the product, the product is less likely to break down."