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RF technology kills bugs and pathogens in food

By Jenni Spinner+

15-Apr-2014
Last updated on 15-Apr-2014 at 22:41 GMT

RF Biocidics technology uses radio frequency to decontaminate, disinfest, and pasteurize food products.
RF Biocidics technology uses radio frequency to decontaminate, disinfest, and pasteurize food products.

Equipment from RF Biocidics harnesses radio frequency technology to disinfect, disinfest, and pasteurize food products, without chemicals.

The method is designed to offer a chemical-free alternative to ridding foods of insects, pathogens, and other undesirables. RF Biocidics recently signed agreements to provide its equipment to Al Foah, the world’s largest producer of dates.

Craig Powell, CEO of RF Biocidics, spoke with FoodProductionDaily to explain the technology, and how it can help food companies ensure the safety and sanitation of their products.

How does RF disinfection/disinfestation technology work?

RF Biocidics uses radio frequency technology in two chemical-free treatments: the APEX and SENTINEL food disinfection and disinfestation systems. These provide environmentally friendly, chemical-free alternatives for disinfection, enzyme inactivation, disinfestation, and drying of food and other products.

The organic technology has a broad range of potential applications, including food safety, agriculture, import/export compliance, and wood and wastewater treatment.

RF Biocidics manufactures equipment designed to eliminate food-related pathogens, pests, and fungi. The engineered systems offer quick and convenient treatment with no change to sensory, nutritional or functional values.

The process uses radio frequency (RF) photons at specific frequencies to activate specific targeted molecules in the host commodity and its pests, inducing well-controlled thermal and electronic effects.

As food passes through the RF Biodics APEX unit, radio freqency energy destroys biological cells (like bacteria and insects) without affecting other cells.

As food passes through the RF Biodics APEX unit, radio freqency energy destroys biological cells (like bacteria and insects) without affecting other cells.

The RF photons used in RF Biocidics’ systems provide a means of disinfecting and disinfestation, because the type of energy created disrupts biologic cells while leaving the molecular structure of the commodities themselves unharmed.  

RF thermal effects are more energy efficient compared to surface heating techniques. The penetrating nature of RF photons means commodities can be heated internally (or volumetrically) as compared to conventional thermal processes, which only heat surfaces.

RF technology provides value across a spectrum of applications, including disinfestation. RF energy can rapidly increase insect body temperature to lethal levels, destroying them by causing cellular damage and body dehydration.

All species and biological stages (eggs, larvae, pupae and adults) are equally affected by absorption of RF energy, since chemical composition and functionality is similar to all arthropods (insects and mites). Insects can’t adapt to the destructive powers of RF over time and develop resistance as they can to pesticides and other chemical agents.

It also is used for pasteurization; thermal energy is lethal to microorganisms, with each species presenting specific heat tolerance. Most conventional (surface heating) and RF thermal disinfection processes are designed principally for pasteurization—killing the pathogenic organisms related to human safety.

In addition to pasteurization, RF can reduce spoilage by destroying molds, yeasts, aerobic flora and other spoilage agents.

It also offers germination control. Germination can lead to significant losses of many foods, including grains and seeds, where losses can reach 25-50% during storage.

Germination is caused by cell reproduction activity, which can be triggered by warm, moist storage conditions as well as by the action of mites. RF energy reduces germination by destroying the enzymes and the mites that can trigger the process.

Also, food drying is an important industry process in which moisture levels in natural foods are lowered to levels that provide stabilization and prevent spoilage. While most food dryers today use conventional (surface) heating ovens with various fuels, RF energy provides an efficient and effective alternative.

It also can lead to enhanced quality for storage. RF processing prevents or minimizes oxidation reactions typically affecting the fatty acid composition of many fat-rich foods, including tree nuts; this results in a more stable food and preserves quality because the natural profile of important nutritional components (such as fatty acids) remains unchanged.

Further, RF energy leaves behind absolutely no change to sensory, nutritional or functional values. The technology supports a consumer-driven industry move away from the use of chemical pesticides to chemical-free, effective, and competitive alternatives.

Are there any risks to consumer health?

Absolutely not. We’ve done some significant testing with respect to potential nutritional and chemical changes, and also examined the composition of food.

We have determined, in a scientifically validated manner, that there are no changes.

One of our core value propositions is the fact that we don’t change the sensory aspects of food. Taste, texture and how food smells—those are the most sensitive components of food, and would be the first things that would be changed even before chemicals could cause damage. We don’t damage food.

Methyl bromide frequently is used—what are some of the problems in using that substance?

First, with methyl bromide there is residual left by it so it doesn’t go away; in short, methyl bromide is a chemical so there’s residue. It had been used extensively as a pesticide until it was phased out by many countries in the early 2000s.

It’s destructive to the environment—more destructive to ozone than chlorine, which is one of the reasons it’s being eliminated. There are also health effects; whether from brief exposure or high concentrations; prolonged inhalation is also problematic as it can cause respiratory, kidney and neurological damage.

Are there any challenges/obstacles to using the RF method? How can they be overcome?

Not really; it simply requires a reasonable amount of electrical power and good, clean reliable electrical power.

When compared to the requirements of competing technologies (some of which require chemicals, rooms in which to apply chemicals, and/or boilers to make steam) the requirements of our technology are comparatively reasonable.

Al Foah uses the technology for dates, which are especially prone to beetle infestation; are there any other crops the technology would be appropriate for?

Yes, for example tree nuts, seeds, spices, dried fruits, pet food and treats. It’s actually easier to say what it’s not appropriate for; for example, right now it’s not good for fresh produce and protein (meat).

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