Bhunia has shown his technology is capable of recognizing Listeria monocytogenes, a microbial pathogen that is the leading cause of food-borne illness. The pathogen has a high mortality rate-one in five-and kills about 500 people each year. E. coli, which has the second highest mortality rate, kills less than 1 percent of those infected.
"This is a really exciting technology," Bhunia said. "I definitely believe it could help save lives, which is our ultimate goal."
Industry has shown interest in Bhunia's technology, as well as the chlorine dioxide work done by Linton and the project's co-leader, Mark Morgan, a professor of food science.
"We are currently working on an industrial tunnel system to apply the gas to produce," Morgan said. His team is also investigating using the gas to sterilize processing equipment. "This would be very helpful, as it could speed up the sterilization process and eliminate the heat energy currently used for such processes."
Previous results have shown the gas to be highly effective at killing microbial pathogens. The largest obstacle remaining is optimizing the system to dispense the appropriate amount of chlorine dioxide, Morgan said. Enough of the gas must be deployed to kill the pathogens, but too much can cause a decrease of quality in the product, such as browning of leafy greens.
"If the product is safe, but nobody will eat it, that's not what we want," Linton said. "We are always thinking in terms of, 'Will this work for industry?' In this case, I believe the answer is yes. I would like to see this technology used regularly by industry in a couple years from now."
Both technologies have the potential to help prevent food-borne illness, Linton said, but he also noted that following proper agricultural practices is as important, if not more important, for food safety.
Since E. coli, or Escherichia