Traditional processing methods can sometimes diminish the food quality of food products. Food scientist are on a quest to ensure food safety without compromising taste, flavor and nutrients.

Jennifer Acuff, an assistant professor specializing in food microbiology and safety at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, points out that industry standards aimed at ensuring safety can sometimes be overly strict, leading to unnecessary loss of food quality.

She acknowledges that traditional processing methods, such as heat-based pasteurization or sterilization, can sometimes diminish the quality of food products by degrading their taste and nutritional content.

Acuff’s focus is particularly on low-moisture food items like powdered milk. Her research team conducted a study to find a balance between food safety and preserving essential vitamins, minerals, and flavors inherent in these products.

“This collaborative approach encompassed microbiology, engineering, and statistics to provide the food industry with what we believe will be a tool to improve safety without compromising quality of their dried food products,” Acuff said.

The process is not limited to low-moisture foods and may extend to other foods and processes, Acuff added.

Using data from a study on a harmless “surrogate” microorganism and a statistical technique called “bootstrapping,” the researchers developed a framework to provide food processors options within U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

“We have proposed a methodology to pick a value between the most liberal and most conservative food processing approaches based on risk tolerances,” said Jeyam Subbiah, head of the food science department. “The industry can use this methodology to pick a value and petition the FDA for approval.”

While there is no specific FDA rule, the government currently asks the food processing industry to make a petition for a case-by-case review.

The study, “Bootstrapping for Estimating the Conservative Kill Ratio of the Surrogate to the Pathogen for Use in Thermal Process Validation at the Industrial Scale,” was published online by the Journal of Food Production in March. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and Mars Wrigley Inc. supported the study.

“Surrogates are like dummies used in crash testing to validate car safety,” Subbiah said. “They are non-pathogenic microorganisms, which should have similar or higher heat resistance than the actual pathogen. Often, they are a lot more resistant.”

Scientists use a “log cycle reduction,” or LCR for short, to calculate how effectively a process kills harmful microorganisms. “Log” refers to the logarithm scale, and 1-log represents a 10-fold reduction equivalent to a 90 percent reduction in bacteria. A 2-log reduction would be a 99 percent reduction, 3-log 99.9 percent, and so on. A 6-log reduction is a 99.9999 percent reduction.

When surrogate microorganisms are used for food safety challenge studies for sterilization of canned foods, the Institute of Food Thermal Processing Specialists recommends a “simple mean,” or average, kill ratio to validate food safety at an industrial scale. For example, Subbiah said if sterilization called for a “12-log” reduction of the pathogen and the surrogate was twice as resistant, a processor could show a “6-log” kill of the surrogate, and the FDA would accept it as equivalent.

However, the drawback of that method is that it does not consider the variability of microorganisms, both the pathogen and the surrogate, Subbiah noted.

Although less prone to foodborne pathogens than fresh meats and dairy, low-moisture foods are not immune. Various types of salmonella have been implicated in 15 deaths, thousands of illnesses, and hundreds of hospitalizations over the past 20 years due to infected low-moisture foods like dried fruits and vegetables, nuts, herbs, flour and spices.

After those food safety outbreaks, the food industry “swung to the conservative mode” in food safety challenge studies, Subbiah said, by requiring the same level of log reduction of the surrogate. For example, if sterilization of spices calls for a 12-log reduction of salmonella, the industry would show a 12-log reduction of the surrogate even though it can be twice as resistant as the pathogen. While this assures a high level of food safety, nutrients may be degraded due to severe thermal processing, Subbiah explained.

Arshpreet Khattra was the lead author of study that developed a framework to help food processors preserve quality while maintaining food safety. The study was published in the Journal of Food Production.

Calculating The Risk

As a food science graduate student in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, Arshpreet Khattra used previously published data from Subbiah’s lab involving the surrogate Enterococcus faecium to develop a solution for preserving quality in thermal processing. She applied the bootstrapping technique to estimate the distribution of kill ratio in milk powders rather than calculate the “simple mean,” or average, kill ratio.

With bootstrapping, scientists can deal with uncertainty in experimental data by generating many samples instead of assuming a specific distribution. The technique calls for randomly picked data points from the original data to give researchers a good idea of how much the results may vary due to chance. It has been used in various studies to improve food processing methods and assess the food safety risks of different microbes in various foods.

From the estimate of kill ratio distribution, the final kill ratio can be calculated on a sliding scale of risk, Subbiah noted. In a hypothetical example, to have a 1 percent risk level, a processor may want a 9-log reduction of the surrogate, which is a 99.9999999 percent reduction. A 5 percent risk level would call for an 8-log reduction, and a 10 percent risk would call for a 6.5-log decrease of the surrogate to be equivalent to a 12-log reduction of the pathogen. A 12-log reduction is typically called sterilization and a 4- to 5-log reduction qualifies as pasteurization.

This method strikes a balance between killing harmful bacteria and preserving quality, Subbiah said.

Khattra is now a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University. Co-authors of the study included Subbiah, Acuff, Kevin Thompson and Andy Mauromoustakos with the Division of Agriculture’s Center for Agricultural Data Analytics, and Surabhi Wason, Ph.D., now with Kerry Ingredients & Flavours in Wisconsin.

Khattra examined data collected in a 2021 study evaluating Enterococcus faecium as a surrogate for salmonella in milk powders at different storage times and temperatures. Subbiah was a co-author of the study led by Xinyao Wei when they were at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A wide range of foods incorporate powdered milk, including candy bars and baby formula.

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website:

Subscribe Processed Food Industry Monthly B2B Magazine