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Journal of Food Science


Controlling the free chlorine (FC) availability in wash water during sanitization of fresh produce enhances our ability to reduce microbial levels and prevent cross-contamination. However, maintaining an ideal concentration of FC that could prevent the risk of contamination within the wash system is still a technical challenge in the industry, indicating the need to better understand wash water chemistry dynamics. Using bench-scale experiments and modeling approaches, we developed a comprehensive mathematical model to predict the FC concentration during fresh-cut produce wash processes for different lettuce types (romaine, iceberg, green leaf, and red leaf), carrots, and green cabbage as well as Escherichia coli O157:H7 cross-contamination during fresh-cut iceberg lettuce washing. Fresh-cut produce exudates, as measured by chemical oxygen demand (COD) levels, appear to be the primary source of consumption of FC in wash water, with an apparent reaction rate ranging from 4.74x10-4 to 7.42x10-4 L/mg center dot min for all produce types tested, at stable pH levels (6.5 to 7.0) in the wash water. COD levels increased over time as more produce was washed and the lettuce type impacted the rate of increase in organic load. The model parameters from our experimental data were compared to those obtained from a pilot-plant scale study for lettuce, and similar reaction rate constant (5.38 x 10(-4) L/mg center dot min) was noted, supporting our hypothesis that rise in COD is the main cause of consumption of FC levels in the wash water. We also identified that the bacterial transfer mechanism described by our model is robust relative to experimental scale and pathogen levels in the wash water. Finally, we proposed functions that quantify an upper bound on pathogen levels in the water and on cross-contaminated lettuce, indicating the maximum potential of water-mediated cross-contamination. Our model results could help indicate the limits of FC control to prevent cross-contamination during lettuce washing.


P.S., C.K., and D.M. acknowledge funding support from the Natl. Inst. of Food and Agriculture Grant No. 2017-67018-26225, from the Center for Produce Safety Award No. 2018CPS06, and the Office of Research at Cleveland State Univ.