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How to make peanut butter and chocolate products safer? Ask this UMass scientist

A UMass Amherst professor has proposed a way to reduce food poisoning outbreaks for sticky products like peanut butter and chocolate.

Equipment used to make those products is hard to clean because low-moisture, high-fat food doesn’t mix well with water. And that has contributed to several outbreaks of food-borne illness.

One previous study discussed using hot oil to sanitize the equipment, but oil doesn’t kill bacteria like salmonella or listeria.

"I remember looking at [the study] and I thought, 'Well, why can't we formulate those oils to be antimicrobial?'" said UMass Amherst food science professor Lynne McLandsborough.

McLandsborough and her team published research in 2023 on how to do that — using acetic acid and a few drops of water. That paper just won the Mahoney Life Sciences Prize, which is worth $25,000.

Monica Tan, a vice president at the company Science Exchange, who was on the awards committee, said McLandsborough's submission "is notable for being the most advanced in bringing academic research to market,” according to a UMass press release. 

McLandsborough said her lab has applied for a patent for the cleaning technology, and is in talks with food companies Mars and J.M. Smucker to start testing it.

Eventually, she hopes to see the formulated oil and technology used in widespread manufacturing — but that will require more work.

"The reality is, if it's going to be applied in the food industry, it's going to be done in a much greater volume," McLandsborough said, "and we need to scale up and we need to try it in the food environment."

Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.