PHHI receives USDA grant to combat E. coli

N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute, the University’s agricultural extension program, received a $2 million grant from the USDA to research ways to eliminate the presence of E. coli in produce that could end up in homes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extensive Initiative awarded  researchers at N.C. State and the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture a $2 million grant to fund a study to develop new organic compounds to treat crops. 

The study is titled “Alternative Post-harvest Washing Solutions to Enhance the Microbial Safety and Quality of Organic Fresh Produce.” The research will be aimed at the particular fruits and vegetables that have been at the center of the recent frequent E. coli outbreaks. 

“The organic food industry is increasing in North Carolina and the United States, awareness and interests are growing as well,” said Steve Lommel, an administrator of N.C. State’s Plants for Human Health Institute. “N.C. State is responding to a market demand so the USDA created a program for help fund the research.”

To apply for the grant, the researchers submitted a proposal to the USDA-OREI. The proposal consisted of an outline of the research to be done and an extensive budget to show that the funds would be used wisely. The grant process is very competitive as the USDA selected only eight out of 100 grant proposals to receive funding. 

The grant will fund an organic project looking for post-harvest applications that meet organic criteria. After harvest crops are treated to ensure that they ship well, look good in the store and also kill any contaminating micro-organisms, such as E. coli. Many fruits and vegetables are treated specifically to kill the E. coli bacteria on the outer surface. 

 Most non-organic treatments included a bleach or chlorine combination. The use of chlorine for post-harvest treatment prevents the product from being labeled as “organic.” The organic food industry is looking for a sterilizing agent that can be applied during the post-harvest treatment. 

The USDA designed the grant to fund research that is to take place over the next four years. The first year and a half will be spent developing formulations for the organic compound as well as designing a system to apply the compound. After the material has been developed, it will be released for testing for researchers at NCSU.

Researchers aim to develop post-harvest protocols that can be labeled as organic. Various oils and water disposable essential oils are being considered to treat the crops. Essential oils are typically derived from other plants and therefore can be labeled as organic. These organic compounds would still be able to eliminate dangerous microorganisms from the surface of the crops. 

“The University of Tennessee will be developing the types of sanitizers that NCSU will be testing,” said Penny Perkins-Veazie, professor and post-harvest physiologist with NCSU’s Plants for Human Health Institute. 

Perkins-Veazie helps manage the NCSU side of the research and is in charge of post-harvest evaluations.

“What researchers at UT are doing is the fundamental work on how you dispense oil particles in a water system,” Perkins-Veazie said. “NCSU will be developing and running the trails in the field. Researchers aim to study the post-harvest effects of the new sterilizing agent, and compare the shelf lives of the fruits and vegetables to those treated with non-organic compounds.” 

The research to be done at the University is designed for what is known as the “back end,” which refers to the stage after the crops have been harvested and making sure they are, and remain, stabilized, healthy and nutritious in the time that it takes to be harvested and served on the dinner table. 

This grant is not only good for researchers at the University, but students as well. The research that is scheduled to take place at NCSU will provide many opportunities for students to be a part of a project that has the potential to receive national recognition. Some graduate students have already been selected to work on the project and Perkins-Veaszie said that undergraduate students will also have an opportunity to get involved.