Put it on Ice

Award-winning research increases food shelf-life, cuts waste

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A novel approach to improving food shelf-life during the storage and transportation of raw poultry and seafood has earned Auburn poultry science assistant professor Dr. Amit Morey one of only nine New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Awards presented nationally in 2018.

The award, presented by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, provides a total of $2.3 million over three years among the nine award-winning early career faculty members for their research to transform how foods are grown, processed and distributed.

“As a food scientist, I work to find ways to capture the food that is being wasted so we can improve the food security of people in the United States,” Morey said. “The main focus of this research project is to devise innovative methods to reduce food waste in the supply chain.

“About 40 percent of the total food produced in the U.S. is wasted at different stages from the farm-to-fork continuum, amounting to 133 billion pounds. And all of this is occurring while people go hungry. Our research is focused on innovative ways to reduce food waste from the processing step onward.”

The foundation is investing in Morey’s development of “functional ice,” a product for storage and transportation that will increase food safety while reducing waste for the poultry and seafood industries.

Morey’s functional ice is colder and melts more slowly than the ice typically used to pack and ship raw seafood and poultry. The ice could be a game-changer for these industries because it uses a slow, sustained release of an antimicrobial solution that works to actively eliminate bacteria.

His research team also will develop a “first-expire-first-out” concept to replace the customary “first-in-first-out” method in food supply chains to help grocery stores reduce food waste.

“This award gives me the funds to conduct the transformative research that is needed for our industry,” Morey said. “At the same time, it gives me the opportunity to train undergraduate and graduate students in the area of developing innovative and advanced technologies to reduce food waste.”

Also, it allows collaborations between food scientists, agricultural economists and the College of Business, he said.

“It’ll strengthen our research moving forward,” Morey said. “This research will provide pragmatic and innovative solutions that can improve food security by reducing food waste.”

Morey described functional ice as a “very simple and innovative” way to increase both the safety and shelf life of raw foods.

“Functional ice is an innovation over conventional ice,” he said. “Regular ice is made simply by freezing water while functional ice is made by adding together certain ingredients and freezing the solution.”

It is called functional ice because it potentially will have the properties to serve multiple functions, including actively eliminating spoilage microorganisms and food-borne pathogens, maintaining or improving quality and providing lower cooling temperatures.

“Functional ice is a concept, and in this concept we are testing different solutions,” Morey said. “Each solution might have a different effect on the product being tested, so end-users can select which of those effects is most important for them."

Researchers have filed a provisional patent through Auburn University and expect to file a full patent in the future.

“In terms of commercialization, we are in the initial phases of learning how to produce functional ice in commercial ice-making machines, so that could be used directly in processing plants or on fishing docks,” Morey said. “Applications would mostly be for poultry and seafood because those are the largest consumers of ice in the industry. But it also could be used in other commodities where ice is used.”

Researchers have been able to extend the shelf-life of chicken stored in functional ice by almost two days. They also have seen reductions in pathogens, especially Salmonella, when the chicken is stored in functional ice. Functional ice also has had a positive effect on the quality of meat compared to regular ice.

“We are working with commercial ice production equipment manufacturers, and once those trials are successful, we can launch it at a commercial level,” Morey said. “Functional ice is easily adoptable because the ingredients used to make it are commonly known to the food industry and approved by the FDA. We are re-purposing how those chemicals are being used. It is a low-cost solution with potential higher benefits.”

Morey’s research collaborators include Dr. Joel Cuffey and Dr. Emir Malikov, both assistant professors in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, and Dr. Shashank Rao, associate professor in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.

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