NC1023: Engineering for food safety and quality

(Multistate Research Project)

Status: Active



Consumers expect the US food industry to develop and deliver safe, high-quality, nutritious, and healthy food products while also addressing several emerging sustainability issues such as resource consumption, food loss and waste, food waste management, and food safety. With these demands have emerged a need for food engineers to develop and deliver novel solutions to address these competing challenges. However, many key technical hurdles need to be overcome to meet these goals. These technical hurdles include: (a) limited characterization of physical, chemical and biological properties of foods that influence their quality and susceptibility to spoilage and contamination; (b) the need for optimization of existing technologies or discovery and translation of new sustainable food processing and packaging technologies that can deliver safe, nutritious, healthy, and high quality foods; (c) the need for development of novel methods to collect and analyze big data and its utilization in product and process development; (d) development and refinement of mathematical models that can enhance the understanding of fundamental dynamics within food processing operations to enable accurate prediction of safety and quality attributes of foods; and (e) training of the next generation of food industry professionals that are equipped with science and engineering tools to address these issues facing the food industry. To solve these technical hurdles, there is a critical need for interdisciplinary efforts and collaboration among food engineers, food scientists, and food industry professionals across the nation. Only with continued dialog and collaboration will truly transformative solutions be discovered to overcome the challenges facing the US food industry. Due to the collaborative nature of NC-1023 and the widespread participation from universities across the country, this multistate project is well-positioned to tackle these challenges in the next project period.


Food engineering and processing research is critical for the US food industry to develop and process nutritious and safe food products. Food engineering research is an interdisciplinary and collaborative enterprise that includes several fields such as experimental food engineering, mechanical/chemical/electrical engineering, numerical simulation and computational modeling, statistical analysis, biology, chemistry, and bioinformatics, to name a few. Thus, there is an ever-present need for platforms that enable researchers to discuss their approaches and find partners for collaboration. NC-1023 provides this platform. Several multi-state research and education projects have been initiated by NC-1023 members as a result of collaborative teams formed in NC-1023 meetings. For example, a group of NC-1023 members (from Maine, Iowa, Idaho, Virginia, Kentucky, Washington stations) received a USDA-NIFA Higher Education Challenge grant award focusing on enhancing learning outcomes in food engineering and processing courses for non-engineers using student-centered approaches. Another example of this multi-state collaboration is a USDA NIFA award received by a consortium of stations focusing on enhancing low-moisture food safety by improving development and implementation of pasteurization technologies (Michigan, Washington, Nebraska and Georgia). This project highlights the collaboration among diverse stakeholders such as engineers, microbiologists, regulators, industry and extension professionals. Through one of the NC-1023 ad-hoc committees, a collaboration on measurement physical properties was formed with partners from seven stations (Idaho, Washington, California, Utah, Missouri, Georgia, and Wisconsin) which evaluated the efficacy of a commonly conducted rheological test on similar samples, and provided recommendations on appropriate test conditions and parameters that can be easily compared across labs. This information may be of critical importance to the food industry if a company is trying to control the rheological properties of a food matrix and are comparing data across plant sites, or to published values. In addition, NC-1023 meetings served as an important nucleation site for eventual formation of the Society of Food Engineers (SoFE) whose mission is to advance the food engineering discipline through engagement with diverse stakeholders including industry. These examples highlight the impact of NC-1023 multi-state group in addressing the food engineering issues experienced by the food industry. The history of successful collaboration among NC-1023 station members is evident from several such examples that have resulted in numerous collaborative outputs.

In the past 5-year cycle, the NC-1023 group has focused on further advancement of processing techniques and mathematical modeling for enhancement of food quality, safety, and nutritional value. In addition, there was a distinct focus on characterizing physical and biological food properties as well as increasing student and stakeholder education. In the next 5-year project period, the focus of the group will be broadened to include collection, analysis, and utilization of big data for development of sustainable food processing techniques, in addition to (a) understanding the physical, chemical, and biological properties of food materials and food processing byproducts; (b) improving existing and developing new sustainable processing methods and technologies to produce safe, high quality, and nutritious food products, (c) utilization of mathematical modeling to enhance our understanding of changes that occur in food matrices during processing and after consumption; and (d) dissemination of knowledge from research projects to students and stakeholders using novel pedagogical methods. 

The diverse capabilities of the member stations of NC-1023 provide a unique opportunity for collaboration that allows for the group to address the pressing needs of the food industry. For example, current industry trends are being driven by consumer demands for functional food products and ingredients, novel plant-based foods, foods for health, and sustainable ingredients and processes. To meet these consumer demands, there is a need for property characterization using not only traditional methods, but through non-invasive imaging techniques, such as hyperspectral imaging and computed tomography. In addition, new processing methods are being developed and described through mathematical modeling that can be utilized to design foods that are healthy, sustainable, and safe. Further efforts are being undertaken to understand the impact of new processing methods on food behavior and nutrient availability after consumption of said products. Through all these engineering efforts, large amounts of data are generated, including images, property data, processing conditions, etc., which can be useful in formulation of new products, optimization of processes, and quality control, if analyzed correctly using innovative data analysis techniques. As a result of collaborative efforts in these areas, it is expected that the impacts from this project will be 1) utilization of big data for advancing food processing and improving food quality and safety, 2) development and modeling of new processing technologies to produce sustainable, healthy food products, and 3) improvement of student and stakeholder learning as a result of education and outreach activities using novel pedagogical methods. These outcomes will be important to enhance the competitiveness of the US food manufacturing industry, as they strive to fulfill consumer demands for sustainable, safe and healthy food products.

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