Trials of potentially “world-changing” technology aimed at prolonging the life of fresh produce have proved successful.
Raw fruit and vegetables experienced an increased shelf life by up to one day in a study that involved produce being sprayed with an electrically-charged solution that kills bacteria responsible for spoilage.
Testing carried out in cold storage revealed that use of the novel system, developed at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), had no effect on the taste or appearance of the produce.
The project, named Microbial Management of Fresh Produce Preservation, Protection and Intervention, began in April 2013 and is being led by food technology developers Norman Pendred & Co., London.
A research team from UWE Bristol also worked with food producers and suppliers from Thanet Earth, a large industrial agriculture/plant factory project consortium in the United Kingdom; the Fresca Group, a UK-based processor of fruits and vegetables; and technology partner Bridge Biotechnology, a UK-based supplier of ESOL solutions.
The technology could be implemented commercially within a year if the food industry is convinced by its benefits, according to Darren Reynolds, UWE Bristol's professor of health and environment.
Tomatoes and cucumbers responded particularly well to treatment with the solution, which is produced by passing salty water through an electro-chemical cell. The activated solution kills bacteria commonly found on the surface of fresh produce, but is harmless to human skin.
The recent trials, which involved treating produce post-harvest , also saw carrots, peppers, potatoes and tropical fruit doused in the activated liquid.
“For some types of produce, we could make a significant impact,” says Reynolds. “We could demonstrate scientifically it would impact on the quality of food in terms of how long it can be stored. It showed we could increase the shelf life by about a day.
“Ultimately, it will make the whole production, distribution and sale process more efficient,” he adds. “That's where I have to head to—a more sustainable world where we are wasting a lot less. With fresh produce, you have to drive it somewhere and treat it. The waste is not just the bits you put in the bin—the whole chain around waste is growing.
“If you really want to change the world, one of the things you could do is extend the shelf life of a cherry tomato by one day. That sounds like a dismissive thing to say, but it would allow producers to be more strategic in the way they crop and give them more time to distribute food before it goes off or gets spoiled. Such small things can actually make a huge difference in the whole food supply chain.”
The project has seen academics team up with food suppliers and supermarkets, is now in the “persuasion phase.”
“People who have a stake in this industry need to adopt it in a way which has end users on board,” Reynolds says. “They have to convince the end users, including supermarkets, that this is a good idea. It's important because the world produces 4 billion tons of food, and as much as 40% of that never reaches the human tummy.
“It's possible we can apply this technology in other spheres as well, like potato blight, which is a problem in parts of Canada. If anything is going to happen, it will happen quickly. From my perspective, all you can do is present a solution where you have laid out and contextualized the risks scientifically.”