From home bakers to commercial food producers, everyone knows that cleaning peanut butter off utensils and out of bowls is a tricky, sticky proposition. That's because of the high-fat content of peanuts and the chemical reality that water and oil don't mix.
To address the more serious implications, University of Massachusetts Amherst food scientist Lynne McLandsborough has received a $434,215 grant from the USDA to develop an oil-based system to clean and sanitize food processing equipment without water, reducing the high risk for Salmonella contamination associated with nuts.
McLandsborough's award was one of 19 food safety and defense grants totaling $8 million announced recently by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
"Cleaning commercial peanut butter and other nut paste facilities is especially challenging," McLandsborough says, "since the presence of liquid in the processing environment can promote growth and survival of microorganisms. It is well-established that peanuts and tree nuts are high-risk foods concerning Salmonella contamination, due to the multiple major outbreaks associated with commercially produced peanut butter."
From the food industry's perspective, McLandsborough's novel approach to sanitizing peanut butter processing plants with cleaning oils would offer several benefits. The factories could be more easily, safely and quickly cleaned with oil-based solutions than with water-based agents, which currently require a plant shutdown for nearly a week to carry out cleaning.
"The long-term impact of the proposed research is the high potential for translation of the technology to the food industry, which has a high need for non-water-based cleaning," she says.
Researchers aim both to develop and validate the effectiveness of innovative technologies for non-aqueous cleaning and sanitizing, focusing on combining a variety of organic acids to create oil-based antimicrobial solutions.
To examine the antimicrobial mechanisms of the oil-based cleaners, they will use the Light Microscopy Lab, one of the Core Facilities at the UMass Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS) and designated a Nikon Center of Excellence.
Through interdisciplinary research across UMass Amherst and with industry partners and collaborations, IALS aims to translate fundamental research into new products, technologies and services that benefit human health and well-being.
"Microscopy will be used with a combination of fluorescent stains to assess the influence of oil-based antimicrobials on membrane disruption, cellular respiration, protein translation and membrane viscosity," McLandsborough explains. "We will look at non-desiccated and desiccated cells before and after antimicrobial treatment."