This is the first article in my “Hope or Hype?” series. I’ll be monitoring new product releases that relate to food safety issues and, from time to time, I’ll give you my opinion, based on the available scientific information, as to whether or not the product claims are reasonable.
The Hype: The January 7, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine profiled an ozone generator, and the company that developed it, under the headline “The Ozone Solution. Purfresh aims to capitalize on E. coli scare stories by cleaning up fruits and vegetables”. The article described Purfresh’s equipment, which is used to produce ozone for produce sprayers and cold storage rooms.
The article’s headline implied that the Purfresh process is being used for both fruits and vegetables. Yet, all of the examples in the article described its use by fruit growers and packers. I wondered about this, and decided to see what studies have been carried out on the effectiveness of ozone treatment for eliminating pathogens from other produce such as lettuce or baby spinach.
I found several research articles, all of which confirmed that ozonated water is more effective than plain water. But the results were variable. A study-to-study comparison of performance was complicated by differences in the test conditions - ozone concentration, length of contact, water temperature and type and quantity of microbial contaminant - used in the various studies.
In a study of the effect of ozonated water on the bacterial levels in fresh-cut lettuce, rinsing the lettuce with ozonated water reduced the bacterial counts by roughly 95%, and extended the shelf life of the lettuce. That remaining 5% of the bacterial population, however, could still include pathogens such as Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7.
The effect of ozonated water on bacteria is very much dependent on the length of contact time. In a study of strawberries and raspberries that had been deliberately contaminated with Salmonella or E. coli O157:H7, researchers were able to kill approximately 99.9% of the bacteria. But it took more than one hour of soaking to do so.
The Bottom Line: Ozonated water was as effective as chlorinated water in most situations. And when ozone decomposes, it leaves no toxic byproducts behind in the food. But, while an ozonated water rinse can reduce overall bacterial levels and improve the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables, it cannot guarantee that the produce will be pathogen-free. Ozonation may be an improvement over chlorination, but it’s not a panacea.