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New 'Oven' Cooks Away Microorganisms on Fresh Chicken

University of Georgia scientists have found a new way to remove harmful pathogens from raw chicken before you buy it.

It's the radiant wall oven, a machine used in the food industry to brown foods.

Smoking Without A Grill

"It gives products the look of having been smoked or grilled," said Romeo Toledo, a food scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

"For instance, boneless turkey breast pieces are cooked and then placed in this oven," he said, "to give them the brown look of a smokehouse-cooked product."

Toledo saw the potential of the oven's ability to kill pathogens when a CAES food science graduate brought it to his attention.

"One of my former students was working on surface treatments for rapidly browning surfaces of oven-cooked foods," Toledo said. "He introduced me to the inventor of this machine."

The inventor agreed to place a radiant wall oven in Toledo's lab so he could test its ability to kill pathogens. And it definitely has the ability.

In his lab, Toledo applied a nonpathogenic strain of a microorganism to food products and then placed the food in the oven. His tests showed exciting benefits.

Killing Pathogens on the Surface

"Traditional methods of removing pathogens include immersing the food in hot water or exposing it to high-velocity hot air," Toledo said. "This kills the pathogens, but can also heat the inside of the product, which requires the product be cooled. The radiant wall oven's heat is so intense and the product goes through so fast that it only heats the surface."

The oven's heat penetrates less than one-eighth of an inch into the food product. The temperature only rises on the surface.

"This oven uses heat from a red-hot surface that surrounds the product," he said. "Infrared energy from the heat makes the surface temperature rise at a very rapid rate, and microorganisms on the surface are killed without heating the insides of the product."

Toledo said the radiant wall oven is perfect for use on raw products like chicken.

"Salmonella is a big problem associated with raw chicken," he said. "We tested chicken drumsticks and thighs in this oven, and the pathogens were removed and the chicken still looked raw."

Quicker and Safer

The oven is still useful for surface browning of precooked turkey, beef or pork products. But now Toledo has found it browns the food quicker and kills pathogens.

"We dipped products like turkey breast in smoke flavoring and put them in the oven," he said. "It's a lot faster than using a smokehouse. It takes 20 seconds compared to four hours in a smokehouse, and you're killing pathogens too."

The oven works best on individual pieces. "The heat has to reach all sides of the product in order to kill the pathogens," Toledo said. "The oven would work great on hot dogs. But you'd have to remove them from the packages, and that's not economically feasible."

Another plus is the oven's size. "It's small, so it doesn't take up a lot of floor space in a food-processing plant," Toledo said. "Traditional equipment takes up a lot of plant space. This oven could replace a heater and a cooler and free up much needed space in processing plants."

Toledo says the food industry is very interested in the radiant wall oven.

Could Help Industry Provide Safer Food

"The industry's interest is sparked by the new U.S. Department of Agriculture rulings for zero tolerance of listeria on cooked, ready-to-eat meats," he said.

"Before, the industry was not required to monitor products for listeria," he said. "Now the USDA can sample products in the market, and if they find listeria, they can ask for a product recall. "

Recalls are expensive and expose processors to bad publicity. "Industry leaders are always looking for new and easier ways to kill pathogens, and I think we've found one," Toledo said.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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