Keeping safe production areas for dry foods has always been a challenge as washdowns create moisture that can breed and grow unwanted bacteria. From 2016 through 2019, approximately 100 multistate E. coli cases were linked to flour and related products, according to the U.S. CDC. Salmonella is also a concern as it accounts for 94% of all U.S. recalls of low-moisture foods and 53% of food outbreaks worldwide.

A new cleaning tool has been under development at Cornell University, which uses superheated steam to kill bacteria on production surfaces. Resembling an overgrown hair dryer or heat gun, the tool can direct dry superheated steam at 250°F at targeted low-moisture food contact surfaces. Abigail Snyder, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science, has been testing the viability of superheated steam to clean these manufacturing environments.

“Cleaning and sanitation in dry food processing and produce packing is a challenge because you can’t use soap or water,” says Snyder. “We’re seeing how well superheated steam works to prevent contamination and to keep food safe.” 

Snyder received a $400,000 grant January 1, 2023 from the Center for Produce Safety as the grant’s primary investigator. It will help the produce industry ensure microbial safety in spaces where the use of traditional wet sanitation is limited. She will partner with co-investigator V.M. (Bala) Balasubramaniam, professor of food science and technology at Ohio State University. They will examine produce-processing pack houses to understand how best to apply this technology.

In 2020, Snyder and Balasubramaniam received a four-year, $1 million grant from National Institute of Food and Agriculture/U.S. Department of Agriculture to research sanitation strategies in the dry food manufacturing environment.