WSU researchers join $9.8M project to study low-moisture food safety

Mixed nuts and dried fruits in bowls, top view.Low-moisture foods, like cereals and flour, dried fruit and nuts, have been recalled repeatedly in the last few years, posing health risks to consumers and economic threats to businesses.

Headshot of Tang
Juming Tang

Juming Tang, Regents Professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, and Meijun Zhu, Associate Professor in the School of Food Science, are collaborating in a Michigan State University-led, USDA-funded investigation of pathogens in these foods.

Bradley Marks, chair of the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, leads a team of economists, engineers, microbiologists, consumer educators and risk modelers in the five-year, $9.8 million grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. NIFA has designated the project as a Center of Excellence, meaning it has high merit value and meets criteria for broad impact.

Low-moisture foods are used as ingredients in a variety of products, so if one supplier faces a recall, numerous items could be affected. One recall or outbreak could put a small operation out of business.

E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria can’t be completely eliminated from dried fruits, nuts, flour and cereals. However, their occurrence can be reduced, and the team are looking forward to developing solutions to do just that.

Headshot of Zhu
Meijun Zhu

Some bacterial pathogens, such as Salmonella and Listeria, are highly resistant to heat in low-moisture environments. WSU researchers will focus on developing a deeper understanding of the reasons behind this heat tolerance, and use this knowledge to develop effective industrial treatments in low-moisture crops, foods, and products.

The WSU team will also collaborate with food companies in Washington state, and nationwide, to improve processes and implement new pathogen-fighting treatment practices.

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