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BBC News: Tech-Based MicroZap Raises Chance of 60-Day Mold-Free Bread

BBC News reports today (Nov. 30) that a Texas Tech University-based company has developed a technique that it says can make bread stay mold-free for 60 days. The bread is zapped in a sophisticated microwave array which kills the spores that cause the problem. The company claims it could significantly reduce the amount of wasted bread.

The technique can also be used with a wide range of foods including fresh turkey and many fruits and vegetables. Food waste is a massive problem in most developed countries. In the United States, figures released this year suggest that the average American family throws away 40 percent of the food they purchase, which adds up to $165 billion annually.

One of the biggest threats to bread is mold. As loaves are usually wrapped in plastic, any water in the bread that evaporates from within is trapped and makes the surface moist. This provides excellent growing conditions for Rhizopus stolonifer, the fungus that leads to mold.

In normal conditions, bread will go moldy in around 10 days. But an American company called MicroZap says it has developed a technique that will keep the bread mold free for two months. MicroZap was spun off from patented technology developed through cutting-edge food sterilization research at the International Center for Food Industry Excellence, which is led by Mindy Brashears, a professor in Texas Tech’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences.

At its laboratory on the Texas Tech campus, MicroZap’s research team showed off the long, metallic microwave device that resembles an industrial production line. Originally designed to kill bacteria such as MRSA and salmonella, the researchers discovered it could kill the mold spores in bread in around 10 seconds. MicroZap’s technology is owned by Texas Tech and licensed worldwide to MicroZap.

“We treated a slice of bread in the device, we then checked the mold that was in that bread over time against a control, ” said MicroZap CEO and Director Don Stull. “And at 60 days it had the same mold content as it had when it came out of the oven.”

The machine the team has built uses much the same technology as found in commercial microwaves, but with some important differences. “We introduce the microwave frequencies in different ways, through a slotted radiator, ” he said. “We get a basically homogeneous signal density in our chamber; in other words, we don’t get the hot and cold spots you get in your home microwave.”

MicroZap’s device has attracted plenty of interest from bread manufacturers, but it is worried that it could push up costs in an industry where margins are very tight. And there is also a concern that consumers might not take to bread that lasts for so long. Stull acknowledges it might be difficult to convince some people of the benefits.

While a wholesale change in the bread industry might be difficult to achieve, there may be more potential with other foods, including ground turkey. In 2011, food giant Cargill had to recall 3.5 million pounds of the product after a salmonella outbreak. Stull believes that using microwaves would be an effective way of treating this and several other products ranging from jalapenos to pet foods.

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