UC-Davis researchers are studying ways to make plastic liners and totes repel pathogens. ( Courtesy Center for Produce Safety )

University of California-Davis researchers are taking an innovative approach to guarding fruits and vegetables against microbial cross-contamination by seeking a way to make produce containers fight against pathogens.

The project, funded by the Center for Produce Safety, has two fronts:

  • Developing antimicrobial plastic liners that can be “recharged” to inactivate pathogens; and
  • Making containers from plastic polymers that repel microbes.

Nitin Nitin, UC-Davis professor in food science and technology and biological and agricultural engineering, is working with polymer scientist Gang Sun and food safety microbiologist Glenn Young on the project. They are just starting the second year of the two-year project, for which they received $282,000 from the center.

Before starting, researchers met with CPS and other industry representatives, including apple industry members.

The liners would be used for bins/totes, using antimicrobial properties that could be recharged with a bleach solution, designed to bind chlorine to the surface, according to a CPS newsletter highlighting research funded by the group. The liners allow the researchers to more quickly study the solution, but are of specific use to industries that use wood containers, including the apple industry, according to the CPS.

"There are many examples where wooden bins are common, and they're very difficult to sanitize," Nitin said in the CPS release. "If you can develop materials that keep them relatively cleaner, that should help them."

The liners have already shown promising results against listeria and other pathogens.

The second part of the project, creating plastic containers that repel pathogens, is also progressing. Initial lab tests have been completed, but the researchers plan to use the special containers in a fresh produce facility.

“We believe it's a good start to see how this works in a highly challenged environment, like bins. Then you can adapt it to other areas,” Nitin said in the CPS release. “Our interest is in developing this material, which could be used in other applications.”