Over the course of their journey from the open fields to the produce displays at grocery stores, fresh vegetables and fruits can sometimes become contaminated by microorganisms. These items can then spoil other produce, spreading the contamination further and increasing the number of food items that can cause illnesses.
To prevent cross-contamination between fresh produce, researchers at Texas A&M University have created a coating that can be applied to food-contact surfaces like conveyor belts, rollers and collection buckets. In addition to being germicidal, the researchers have designed their coating to be extremely water-repellent. The researchers said without water, bacteria can’t stick or multiply on surfaces, thereby drastically curbing contamination from one piece of produce to another.
“Consuming contaminated raw foods causes hundreds of people to get sick annually, and so food contamination is not only a huge health concern but is also a significant economic burden,” said Mustafa Akbulut, associate professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering. “In our study, we show that our new dual-function coating — one that can both repel and kill bacteria — can greatly mitigate bacterial spread, averting cross-contamination.”
To overcome the obstacles posed by the current technologies, Akbulut and his team proceeded to create an antimicrobial surface coating that is also extremely hydrophobic. They noted the coating’s water-repelling property can help food-contact surfaces retain their germicidal action much longer.
Despite the high efficacy of their coating in preventing bacterial spread, the researchers said that more investigation is needed to determine if the coating works equally well for mitigating viral cross-contamination. Although longer-lasting than other coatings, they noted that their coating too would need to be reapplied after a certain amount of use. Thus, as a next step, Akbulut and his team are working on developing more permanent, dual functionality coatings.
“Our goal is to create smart surfaces that can avert any kind of pathogen from attaching and multiplying,” Akbulut said. “In this regard, we have developed surface coatings that can prevent bacteria from collecting on surfaces, which is one of the major reasons for cross-contamination. We are now working with researchers in agriculture to take our invention from bench to practice.”