Project looks at sanitizer efficacy in apple packing line dump tanks

January 25, 2022 - Although several researchers have examined potential pathogen cross-contamination from wash water in fresh-cut produce operations, little data exists on potential risks from apple packinghouse dump tanks.

Meijun Zhu, Ph.D., with Washington State University, hopes her project will fill those knowledge gaps with science-based data that apple packers can use to enhance food safety plans or risk assessments.

“You’re never going to be able to totally eliminate or prevent cross contamination, but we’re trying to look at additional options to see if we can improve (disinfectant) efficacy,” Zhu said. “I think our data should give some insight on the practical efficacy of a dynamic system.”

Joining her as co-principal investigator in the project, titled “Validation of sanitizer disinfection of wash water in dump tank operation of apple packing lines,” is Faith Critzer, Ph.D., with the University of Georgia.

The researchers focused on Listeria monocytogenes because it has been tied to previous outbreaks associated with caramel apples. 

Zhu credited Washington apple industry cooperators and the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission for helping guide them to ensure their research is applicable and reflects real-world apple packinghouse operations.

The researchers have finished bench-scale research in the laboratory. This examined the efficacy of three concentrations and three contact times of two standard disinfectants used in dump tanks – chorine and peroxyacetic acid (PAA). They also inoculated the water with a specific quantity of a three-strain Listeria cocktail and measured how many pathogens were recovered after the contact time. In addition, part of the testing looked at disinfectant efficacy in wash water with two different organic loads as well as in plain water.
Little data exists on potential Listeria cross contamination in apple packinghouse dump tanks.
Research looks at two industry standard sanitizers as well as a handful of other GRAS chemicals to potentially enhance efficacy.
Project involves laboratory tests, pilot packinghouse trials and commercial packinghouse validation.
Results also may be applicable to other fruits and vegetables with similar practice and surface properties and that undergo dump tank treatment.
Using a recipe that involved soil from a Yakima, Washington, apple orchard and exudates from fresh nicked apples and decayed apples, Zhu said they tried to mimic conditions in packinghouse dump tanks. The higher organic rate also was designed to simulate a worse-case scenario.

In lab testing, chlorine at 25 ppm had limited efficacy against Listeria in high-organic matter dump water. At 100 ppm, chlorine was not affected by low levels of organic matter, but its efficacy was reduced by high organic loads.

The efficacy of PAA, on the other hand, increased with concentration and contact time and was only minimally influenced by organic loads. PAA at 40 ppm had higher efficacy than 100 ppm chlorine. 

“PAA and chlorine both can reduce Listeria when compared to no sanitizer,” Zhu said. “With those sanitizers, it definitely helps even though we couldn’t totally eliminate the pathogen, and it depends on the concentration.”

“We started using a high inoculation level because we tried to see the log reduction. In a real industry setting, contamination will be low and the (sanitizer) concentration will fluctuate.”

The researchers also are looking at chlorine and PAA combined with a handful of other chemicals considered GRAS, or generally recognized as safe. They include octanoic acid and lauric arginine, and were chosen based on literature reviews, Zhu said.

“We’ve done some bench-scale testing, and efficacy increased but we still weren’t able to totally prevent cross-contamination,” she said.

Their next step involves testing disinfectant efficacy in a WSU pilot dump tank that will also include apples. The researchers will use the same recipe to simulate dump tank water.

“This testing will be essential before we move into commercial packinghouses,” Zhu said. “This [tank system] will be much smaller than a commercial operation but much bigger than our bench-scale testing. If the system is only water, it will be an easy assessment. Once you put fruit in, it becomes complicated.”

The researchers plan to validate their bench-scale and pilot-plant findings in three to four cooperating packinghouses before the end of 2022. Zhu plans to work with the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Commission to recruit participants.
Meijun Zhu, Ph.D.
Washington State University

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