Researchers at the University of Maine are to investigate foodborne pathogens, supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The $150,000 grant will fund a study that uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the internalization of foodborne pathogens inside produce. According to the university, this will be the first research of its kind.

Internalization of foodborne pathogens is the process by which harmful bacteria move into the edible parts of produce, posing a threat to human health because the bacteria cannot be easily washed away, explained Dr. Vivian Wu, a professor of food science at the university and lead researcher on the project.

"Either microorganisms will contaminate a surface of produce — leaves, plants, fruit — but there is another possibility microorganisms can actually internalize, get inside of the plant cell tissues. That will make the control of microorganisms and contamination even more difficult. Once microorganisms internalize inside of a plant tissue, it's very difficult to get rid of them," Wu said.

Using MRI technology, the researchers hope to trace bacterial internalization of fresh produce in order to understand the process and come up with ways to prevent it.

This approach will allow the team to study pathogens without having to use invasive methods on the products they are studying, the university pointed out.

In the future Wu hopes to expand the research to understand how bacterial microorganisms infect meat without having to harm the animals.

"I think for animal matters it's more meaningful to have something that is non-invasive so you don't need to sacrifice a lot of animals to understand internalization of foodborne pathogens," she said.