The SAFE-BAG project will develop a novel continuous in-pack decontamination system for fresh-cut fruits and vegetables to replace chlorine. Preliminary research conducted indicates that in-pack non-thermal plasma (an energetic ionised gas) can significantly reduce the microbial load of fresh fruits and vegetables. SAFE-BAG will advance this knowledge by carrying out further research to maximise potential benefits of this technology, in order to be validated in industry. Dr. Edurne Gaston Estanga, the Scientific Coordinator of the EU co-funded project SAFE-BAG that is in progress in Spain gave an interview to AgroTypos about this project.
What is the main objective of the project SAFE-BAG?
The overall objective of the project is to develop a pre-competitive prototype of a novel process to reduce microbial load in packed fresh-cuts, based on cold atmospheric plasma technology. Such a process will ensure food safety and extend the shelf-life of the produce without altering its quality or nutritional profiles.
To achieve this goal, five objectives were set. Firstly, we aimed to use a lab scale plasma test-rig to optimise the plasma process parameters that lead to maximum antimicrobial efficacy while retaining product quality and nutrition. Our second objective was to characterise the physical plasma discharge and to correlate it with antimicrobial efficacy, in order to better understand the insides of the process. Thirdly, we aimed to scale up the process to pre-competitive level, i.e. to design and build an industrial prototype unit. Our final two objectives were to validate the performance of the prototype unit in the fresh-cut industry and to demonstrate the viability of the prototype unit.
How important is this system for fruits and vegetables and what is the new achievement?
Chlorine is one of the most effective sanitisers and its use is widespread in the fresh-cut industry. Despite strict safety & hygiene standards during processing, outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with ready-to-eat fruit and vegetables exist globally. New risks are often encountered because of changing characteristics of relevant microorganisms and the environment. Increasing the safety of these products is of paramount importance for protecting consumers, especially in view of the growth in the consumption of packaged fresh-cut produce.
The use of cold atmospheric plasma for food preservation purposes is an innovation in itself, and this technology has recently been added to the list of non-thermal processes for foods. Moreover, the novelty of the SAFE-BAG approach lies in generating the plasma inside a sealed package containing the produce, which facilitates rapid treatment and eliminates the risk of post-process contamination. SAFE-BAG is a dry, non-thermal and chemical-free washing technology, compatible with online production and MAP packaging, which leaves no hazardous residues in the treated produce.
When will this system be completed? Do you believe that the market will accept it?
The pre-competitive prototype has been built and is ready for industrial validation, which involves testing the technology for a wide range of industrial products and conditions. The validation trials will take place at the project partner sites, Nature’s Best in Ireland and Verdifresh in Spain. The control of the technology under industrial-like conditions is key to the successful adoption of the technology. Additional steps will be geared towards implementing the further development and scale-up recommendations resulting from industry validation trials.
It is still too early to predict when teh system will be commercially available. There has been significant interest from processors around the world. Testing of the prototype under industrial conditions needs to be completed, followed by a next generation technology aimed at commercial level processing conditions. It is envisaged that this could be completed in 2–3 years.