The University of Maine has been awarded a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to research improvements to food processing technologies.

The $4.9 million award will be used to develop ways of enhancing the safety and quality of fresh produce and low-moisture foods, such as raw grains, spices, seeds and nuts. The project will be led by Vivian Wu, professor of microbiology and food safety in the School of Food and Agriculture, and will focus on waterless, non-thermal technologies, examining the effectiveness and mechanisms of inactivating bacterial, viral and parasitic pathogens using light and gaseous treatments.

As the University of Maine explained, recent decades have seen an increase in the consumption of produce and low-moisture foods, which are susceptible to contamination by pathogens, from pre- to post-harvest. Food scientists want to develop new technologies that will improve the safety and extend the shelf life of these products without compromising their appeal.

Non-thermal treatments allow for foods to be processed below the temperatures used during pasteurization and canning, causing minimal changes in flavor and quality while removing pathogens.

The researchers at UMaine will investigate emerging technologies in this area, such as decontaminating lights, gaseous treatment and cold plasma (ionized atmospheric air) — processes that are used on an industrial scale for the manufacturing of electronics and medical instruments.

They intend to use combinations of technologies to optimize product quality and inactivate pathogens, and hope to commercialize the process.

USDA also awarded UMaine a two-year, $150,000 grant to improve food safety by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the invasion and localization of pathogens in plants.

The grants were among 36 food safety research awards announced by USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.