$9.8 million USDA NIFA grant supports researchers’ aim to change food safety culture for low-moisture foods

Special to the Express
Paris Express

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — In 2009, the recall of a single contaminated peanut butter product led to recalls of more than 200 other products in which the peanut butter was an ingredient.

Product recalls for low-moisture foods are less common than those of high-moisture foods, like meat, said Jeyamkondan Subbiah, head of the food science department for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “But low-moisture food recalls can affect more products and brands because of their use as ingredients,” he said.

Subbiah said food safety precautions are as crucial for low-moisture foods — including cereals, nuts, dried foods and other products — as they are for high-moisture foods like meat. But the culture of food safety is less established for low-moisture foods.

Subbiah’s research aims to change that culture.

The Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, the research arm of the Division of Agriculture, is one of nine institutions in a nationwide collaboration led by Michigan State University that has received a $9.8 million Sustainable Agricultural Systems grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study food safety in low-moisture foods.

Subbiah is the lead investigator for the Experiment Station’s portion of the research, supported by a $600,000 share of the SAS grant.

Situational awareness

“While the bacterial levels in low-moisture foods are generally lower than in high-moisture foods, there is still a significant food safety problem,” Subbiah said.

Other than their use as ingredients, Subbiah said low-moisture foods could pose significant food safety problems because they are ready-to-eat products consumed without being cooked. Also, many food industry employees and consumers assume low-moisture foods are safe and may not take sufficient precautions when handling them.

“Everyone knows food safety is important in high-moisture foods, particularly for meat processing,” Subbiah said. “A lot of attention is given to cleanliness and environmental monitoring for pathogens in beef or poultry processing plants.”

And consumers know to wash their hands and countertops after they’ve been in contact with raw meats, he said.

But less attention tends to be aimed at low-moisture foods, Subbiah said. “While the bacteria do not grow in low-moisture food, they survive. When an opportunity arises, they can multiply and cause foodborne illness outbreaks.”

As in the peanut butter case, low-moisture foods are often mixed in high-moisture processes when used as ingredients in other products. Subbiah said this could amplify the growth of otherwise slow or dormant bacteria.

And because contamination of low-moisture foods can affect so many other products, a recall can have greater economic impacts than a meat recall.

System upgrades

Five years ago, while on faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Subbiah was part of another research collaboration that investigated new technologies and methodologies that could address food safety concerns in low-moisture foods. Some of the institutions involved in that project are also part of the current collaboration.

“We developed intervention technologies to enhance the safety of low-moisture foods,” Subbiah said.

The problem is that adopting new technology is expensive. Installing the equipment, learning to operate it and adopting new procedures to assure clean food processing facilities requires production lines to stop. On top of that, food safety upgrades may add to energy and water use, wastewater management requirements and other impacts.

“These plants are running 24 hours a day,” Subbiah said. “Shutting down the lines to make significant changes in equipment costs the industry.

“We want to give them hard data to convince them this is sustainable,” Subbiah said.

Culture shift

Good, productive research leads to a next step. Subbiah said the next step for his earlier research is to encourage the adoption of technologies and methodologies to improve food safety. That’s his aim for the Division of Agriculture’s role in this new research collaboration.

Subbiah plans to evaluate the sustainability of food safety interventions at all steps in the supply chain. He will also measure the applications for large and small scales, from local foods to national chains.

The intent, he said, is to change the food safety culture from harvest to the consumer. “It’s not all on the food processors,” Subbiah said. “Reliable and effective food safety requires a change at every point in the supply chain.”

To accomplish this task, Subbiah enlisted Marty Matlock, formerly a professor of biological and agricultural engineering for the Division of Agriculture, and now executive director of the University of Arkansas Resiliency Center. Matlock brings expertise in sustainable agriculture, food and water systems.

Subbiah has experience in this kind of investigation. He has already successfully evaluated the sustainability of food safety interventions in the beef industry and plans to apply the same methods to low-moisture foods.

He will begin by evaluating the sustainability in the wheat flour industry and extend the work to almonds and dried apples.

“We picked these foods as our prime focus as they represent cereal, nut and dried fruit categories,” Subbiah said.

He and Matlock will conduct sustainability analyses that consider all the variables of human health, including food safety, occupational health and environmental footprint of energy and water use and wastewater production. They will collaborate with other teams on consumer responses, economics, known pathogen control, personnel development and education.

“Our initial goal,” Subbiah said, “is to accelerate the adoption of a sustainable food safety culture in commodity-based, low-moisture food systems.

“Our long-term objective is to reduce foodborne illnesses and associated recalls linked to low-moisture foods,” he said. “It will improve the protection of public health and the economic health of all scales within the industry.”

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uark.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch and Instagram at ArkAgResearch.

About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.