A new approach to pathogen-free seeds and grains
This non-thermal sterilization method kills bugs, but not the flavor or texture of RTE seeds/grains and sprouts
If you’re nervous about having sprouts on your salad or eating raw sunflower seeds, you’re not alone. These products have had their share of recalls, sicknesses and deaths due to pathogens like E.coli, Salmonella and Listeria. You can kill the pathogens with heat and/or irradiation, but don’t expect seeds and sprouts to taste the same.
Rob Wong, president and COO of Agri-Neo, and his team have been working for the past seven years to come up with an intervention capable of killing pathogens on seeds and grains without killing the flavor or texture of the product or “cooking” the life out of them. Not only will the process knock down bacteria by a factor of 5-log, it will also kill molds, yeasts and other spore formers while being certified organic, Halal and Kosher.
The process, termed Neo-Pure, requires both hardware and a liquid “intervention,” as Wong calls it. The cost of the combined system compares favorably with other large sterilization systems that tend to alter flavors or natural qualities of the product being treated. After the liquid has been spray applied to the product and the intervention is complete, the final liquid resultant is water, and the product can be dried at a very low temperature. The system has patents for both the hardware and the liquid intervention that is derived from food-grade organic compounds found in nature. FE asked Wong to describe this system in more detail.
FE: How long has Neo-Pure been in development, and who is the key developer(s)?
Rob Wong: Agri-Neo has been developing Neo-Pure since 2009, validating the efficacy of the product in treating various seeds, grains and nuts; working on our application system; and scaling up. Since last year, we’ve been in soft launch mode in Canada with several processors that have been treating commercial volumes of product. At the July IFT16 exposition in Chicago, we formally launched Neo-Pure for the full North American market and have already added processor customers on both coasts of the US that will integrate the Neo-Pure Food Safety System into their operations.
Our three founding partners—myself, company CEO Nick Dillon and our Biochemistry Director Fadi Dagher—were all involved in the development and commercialization of Neo-Pure. Nick and I share backgrounds as consultants at Bain & Co., where we gained lots of experience working with food companies. And Fadi had developed sanitizer technologies for killing pathogens on hard surfaces like farm equipment. That became an inspiration for Neo-Pure when a farmer said, “Your stuff works great for killing germs on my tractor. Can’t you develop something similar that would kill the germs on what I’m growing?”
FE: What is Neo-Pure?
Wong: Simply put, Neo-Pure is a safe, effective and organic intervention step specifically designed to destroy pathogens and unwanted microbes on low-moisture foods like whole and sprouted seeds and grains. Derived from plants and biodegradable, it is formulated as a liquid that is misted onto food in a high-throughput, turnkey system to ensure every seed or grain is uniformly covered to maximize efficacy. Approved by food safety authorities in the US and Canada, Neo-Pure has been validated to achieve a 5-plus log reduction in pathogens without affecting organoleptic or nutritional properties, ensuring food remains organic, raw and viable.
FE: How does the Neo-Pure process kill bacteria and spore formers? How effectively?
Wong: Neo-Pure is highly effective in killing bacteria and spore formers. It’s been validated to achieve a 5-plus log reduction in killing pathogens on a wide variety of dry foods. Its mode of action is that it uses oxygen as a disruptor of the cell structure of pathogens, denaturing multiple parts of microbial cells (i.e., cell wall, DNA, enzymes) in a multi-site mode of action.
FE: Is the same action that kills bacteria also what kills certain spore formers?
Wong: Yes, that same oxygen-driven action is lethal to both bacteria and spore formers.
FE: Is this process equally effective on Gram-negative (e.g., Salmonella, E. coli) and Gram-positive (e.g., Listeria) bacteria?
Wong: Neo-Pure is a broad-spectrum intervention—it doesn’t discriminate between Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria—and is equally effective against them both. The tests that have been conducted for us by independent laboratories like the Food Sciences labs at the University of Guelph have validated Neo-Pure to achieve a 5-plus log reduction in Gram-positive and Gram-negative microbes. Our solution is also effective on non-pathogenic yeast, molds and coliforms. Furthermore, it controls total aerobic plate count to meet customer specification targets.
FE: You mentioned that the process is liquid, and the resultant is water. How wet is the product after treatment, and how do you dry it to its original moisture content?
Wong: Neo-Pure is completely biodegradable—and after it has controlled pathogens and unwanted microbes, all that is left behind is “free water,” which is left on the surface of the food. It’s that water that gets dried back to the starting moisture of the product. Generally speaking, Neo-Pure adds up to 4 percent additional surface moisture to foods, depending on the rate used. The purpose-built dryers that are part of the Neo-Pure Food Safety System operate at low temperatures that are designed to maintain the natural sensory and nutritional characteristics of the foods. Foods are no longer considered “raw” if their core temperature is raised above 110°F. Our dryers operate well below that level—at a wet-bulb surface temperature of 80°F. Core temperatures stay even lower.
FE: What equipment is needed, and how much does it cost per throughput?
Wong: The Neo-Pure Food Safety System that we’ve designed consists of an applicator and an associated dryer that comprises a chamber and air handling unit. This high-throughput system can process 10 tons per hour—and at that level of throughput, the system is available for under $500,000.
FE: What storage requirements does the liquid intervention require? What is its shelf life?
Wong: Neo-Pure has no special storage requirements. Our liquid intervention solution has a shelf life of a few years.
FE: Will this process work with peanuts and tree nuts?
Wong: Yes. Agri-Neo is currently working on expanding the portfolio of food products that can be validated to a 5-plus log pathogen reduction following Neo-Pure intervention, and that includes nuts. In pilot tests, we’ve been able to replicate on nuts the same successful results we’ve seen on seeds and grains. And we’re now working with a significant North American processor of cashews and almonds to confirm scalability. The intervention process, both at the molecular level and in terms of equipment, would be the same for nuts as for the foods that currently use Neo-Pure.
FE: Is this treatment GRAS?
Wong: Yes. Neo-Pure meets “Generally Recognized as Safe” criteria. As a product derived from plants that biodegrades into water and leaves no residues, Neo-Pure is also certified organic by Ecocert, under both US NOP (National Organic Program) and Canadian COR (Canadian Organic Regulation) standards. And I’ll add that Neo-Pure is non-GMO, as well as Kosher and Halal.
For more information, www.agri-neo.com.