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USDA Pilot Grant to Fund Research for Food Processing Industry

Undergraduate students Tiffany Bernsten and Jenn Finkbeiner are part of a research team that is focused on food safety.

By Jenn Ambrose

A transdisciplinary research team led by Jim Browning, professor and chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, has received funding from the USDA for a new project focused on food safety, opening the door to a brand new area of investigation for Boise State researchers.

Buildup of microbial biofilms on food processing equipment and surfaces poses a serious problem in the food industry. These biofilms serve as reservoirs for contamination by potentially serious food-borne pathogens and undesirable products in foodstuffs that reduce palatability and shelf-life. Consequently, the food processing industry suffers losses in product sales, increased product recalls, and increased processing costs associated with downtime required to clean and sanitize equipment. A device that could be engineered to function in-line for continuous sanitation of food processing surfaces, particularly difficult to penetrate surfaces, would reduce industry reliance on harsh chemical cleaning treatments and would contribute to improved food quality and safety.

Browning recently led a team in a successful effort to secure USDA funding to develop a cold atmospheric pressure (CAP) ionized gas generating system for use in the food processing industry. Other team members include Ken Cornell, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Julia Oxford, Biological Sciences, and Don Plumlee, Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering. Sam Minnich, School of Food Science, from the University of Idaho is also collaborating on the research.

For the past three years this interdisciplinary group of professors has worked together supplying complementary expertise in plasma science, infectious disease biofilms, cell biology and device manufacturing to teach a Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) course at Boise State University through the College of Innovation and Design. Students participating in the VIP Plasma Medicine course supplied the initial data for the USDA grant proposal. Students fabricated the plasma source, prepared the test samples, performed the experiments and performed the sample measurements.  The USDA Pilot Award consists of $150,000 in funding for 18 months to develop a CAP plasma generating system and to demonstrate its effectiveness in removing pathogens and pathogenic biofilms from food processing surfaces.

The plasma works by several mechanisms; it can etch biofilms from surfaces as well as produce reactive oxygen and nitrogen species that kill microbes through oxidant damage to membranes and other cellular constituents. In the food processing industry, a CAP plasma delivery system could be incorporated into machinery to sanitize or sterilize surfaces without the use of harsh alkali or acid chemical treatments. The pilot award supports the initial construction and testing of prototype plasma devices and the training of graduate and undergraduate students. The grant also positions the group to apply for future phase II funding through the USDA Agriculture and Food Safety Research Initiative and to work with the Idaho food processing industry to develop the technology.