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Reducing Foodborne Illness With Microwaves Is Focus of $5 Million USDA Grant to WSU, Partners

PULLMAN, Wash. – Using newly-developed microwave technologies to control bacteria and other microbes that can cause food-borne illnesses and deaths will be the focus of a $5 million, multi-year, multi-institutional grant recently awarded to Washington State University and its partners by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“While the U.S. food supply is generally considered to be one of the safest in the world, approximately 48 million Americans become sick each year due to food-borne illnesses,” said Dr. Catherine Woteki, USDA chief scientist and under secretary for research, education and economics. “These grants support the development of a more complete understanding of the sources and implications of microbial contamination and will promote the adoption of new food safety strategies and technologies. The goal is to greatly improve the safety of our food supply and, ultimately, save lives.”

WSU scientists will join forces with researchers at the University of Tennessee, North Carolina State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Eastern Regional Center and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center. The team will look at how best to expand the commercial possibilities of microwave technologies to control harmful bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods. They specifically will be working with ready-to-eat foods, deli meats and seafood.

The award drew praise and approval from both the public and private sector.

“I have been proud to secure investments in this great project, which provided the foundational research that allowed WSU to have the expertise to win this competitive grant.  This new technology will keep families safe and will create good jobs right here in Washington state,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. “WSU is doing great work turning top-notch research into products that will increase food safety for America’s consumers and boost the local economy, and I am proud to be their partner in those efforts.”

Tang said the project has several key components. “The goal of this integrated project is to bridge the scientific and engineering gaps that currently limit commercial applications of microwave technologies for the control of bacterial and viral pathogens in packaged foods,” he said. “We are pleased to have been able to team up with leading experts in food microbiology at the University of Tennessee, food safety risk assessment at USDA-ARS Eastern Regional Center, sensory studies at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center and project progress assessment at North Carolina State, as well with our industrial partners, including Seafoods Products Association and the International Microwave Power Institute.”

P. Michael Davidson, professor and head of food science and technology at UT, said, “We are extremely pleased to be working with someone of the caliber of Dr. Juming Tang as well as the other outstanding collaborators on this exciting research project. The information generated, along with the processes and equipment developed, will go a long way towards providing increased protection of consumers from food-borne illnesses caused by bacterial and viral pathogens.”

Specifically, the scientists will study:

  • What microwave-based pasteurization processes are required to inactivate high risk bacterial and viral pathogen
  • Improving microwave systems designs and
  • Developing and validating the processing protocols needed to control pathogens in a variety of ready-to-eat foods.

In addition to Tang and Davidson, co-project directors include:

  • Doris D’Souza, assistant professor of food science and technology, University of Tennessee
  • Barbara Rasco, professor of food science, and Shyam Sablani, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, WSU
  • Patrick Dunne, Tom Yang and Alan Wright, U.S. Army Natick Solider Center
  • Lihan Huang, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Eastern Region center
  • Denis Gray, professor of psychology, North Carolina State University

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Media Contacts

Juming Tang, professor, (509) 335-2140
P. Michael, professor of food science and technology, (865) 974-0098