CSU, Chico News

Collaboration Between Olive Grower and Chemist Finds Solution

Date: 06-17-2010

Kathleen McPartland
Public Affairs
Jim Postma
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

Seven years ago, third-generation olive and almond grower Merritt Erickson approached Jim Postma, a chemist at California State University, Chico, with a question about olive preservation. That question, “How could olives be kept fresh for shipping to individuals who wanted to cure their own?” led them to an answer that has ramifications for not just olives, but many food products.

Their work together has resulted in the formulation of a natural product that removes salmonella and E. coli from fruits, vegetables and nuts quickly and safely. They’ve completed lab testing, received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and are certified by National Organic Program regulations.

Erickson provided funding through the University Research Foundation for one of Postma’s microbiology students, James Conroy, to do preliminary research into finding a solution to preserve olives for short periods of time before they were cured. A vinegar and benzoic acid solution was then used in the industry. Postma and the student decided to look at vinegar, citric acid and ascorbic acid and were somewhat amazed by the results of their research—the olives kept for months and retained their color and texture.

During the seven years of the project, students Amber Ratcliff and Kevin Parsons also helped with the research.

To pass FDA testing, the chemists needed to prove that their formula killed pathogens. When test results came back from California Microbiological Consulting Inc., the pathogen kill was “5-log,” significantly greater than the industry standard. “That was a very high number,” said Postma. “The standard for the industry was a 4-log [log stands for logarithm], which means leaving only one part per 10,000. Five-log means leaving only one part per 100,000.”

About the time they were getting these test results, the almond industry was having trouble with salmonella contamination in raw almonds. That gave them a new question to work with, which was whether their solution could be used to sterile raw almonds. Erickson worked with the Almond Board of California and Blue Diamond Growers, which tested the solution on almonds with positive results.

The significance of their findings to the food industry is enormous, as growers and processors deal with containing bacterial outbreaks that cost them millions of dollars. The significance to the consumer is that there is a more natural and less toxic way to decontaminate food than the chlorine that is currently used on a majority of fresh fruit and vegetables.

The University of Illinois is currently doing trials on the product. Earthbound Farm, a big grower of lettuce in the Salinas area, was already working with scientists at the university on contamination problems when Erickson contacted them with their solution. The results will be available in the very near future.

Erickson is thrilled with the results of his collaboration with Postma and wants other farmers and growers to be aware of CSU, Chico as a place with resources to solve similar problems. “I had no idea how to proceed with getting an answer to my original question and couldn’t have done it without the help of Jim and his students,” said Erickson.

Postma also is pleased with the collaboration and the opportunity it gave students to do some basic research with far-reaching and practical applications.

Next week, UC Davis will hold its first food safety conference, which Erickson plans to attend. It will give him a chance to share the results of the research and the product, called “Organic Chico Wash,” with food industry representatives from across the nation.