Increasing concerns about foodborne illness in leafy green vegetables have led many to question the adage: “Eat your greens!” But UMass Food Science PhD candidate Pragathi Kamarasu is doing her part to ensure that leafy green vegetables are safe to eat — and remain an important part of a healthy diet.
Kamarasu is collaborating with Food Science Extension Associate Professor Amanda Kinchla on a research project that’s funded by a Food Safety Fellowship she received in September from the Capital Area Food Protection Association (CAFPA), with sponsorship from the Kikkoman Biochemifa Corporation.
Her research will involve conducting surveys and leading workshops designed to encourage produce-handling professionals to stay abreast of and follow CDC-recommended cleaning and sanitation practices. It will also include investigating the role ATP testing can play in ensuring better sanitation of processing equipment.
Kamarasu points to the “huge knowledge gap and lack of research in this particular sector of food-handling processes,” and says she’s excited to share her results on the proper handling of produce with farmers and producers. “When foods are not handled properly people fall sick, which can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting caused by microorganisms that grow and spread rapidly,” she says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), leafy greens like spinach, romaine lettuce, and cabbage are responsible for 46 percent of foodborne illnesses. The main reason for this high number is that these types of produce are “often consumed raw without an inactivation step, like cooking, that can remove microbial contamination,” says Kamarasu, who works in Assistant Professor Matthew Moore’s Food Lab.
Kamarasu says that what drives her is the desire to “make food a lot safer for consumption. So many people are not aware of the risks, but scientists are putting effort into mitigating them.”
Kamarasu has an undergraduate degree in food technology from Anna University in Chennai, India. In 2017, she relocated to Western Massachusetts to join the master’s program in food science at UMass Amherst, and is now pursuing a PhD.
“I wanted to leave my comfort zone, so when I received the email from Matthew Moore asking me to be a part of his research team, I was more than ecstatic about this wonderful opportunity,” says Kamarasu. “The UMass food science department is the first one to be established in the entire country and it’s been ranked as one of the best universities in the world for research capabilities.”
“Pragathi is a great scientist,” says Moore. “Her research addresses both an interesting and important question related to developing indicator technologies for sanitation — and will have an immediate, important impact on industry."
Kinchla agrees. “The Kikkoman experience provides an excellent opportunity for Pragathi to enhance her laboratory skills using methods that apply to the food industry,” she adds.
“Small- and medium-size leafy green growers often retrofit washing machines to utilize the centrifugation force, which effectively turns them into large salad spinners,” Kamarasu says. As there are no CDC-approved cleaning and sanitation controls involved in the use of these machines, the possibility of microbial spread remains, and can lead to consumer outbreaks. Finding a better way to validate the proper cleaning and sanitization of this equipment — including analytical tests and the possible use of ATP tests — may be an important factor in an effective sanitation program.
For her part, Kamarasu expresses gratitude to her instructors, who have helped her realize this opportunity “I definitely wouldn't be able to do this work without the support of my professors, Matthew Moore and Amanda Kinchla,” she says. “The academic program has been wonderful, but I I’ve learned way more from doing research and working in the lab — the practical application of what you learn is the best way to understand the level of attention details require to get the results you want. In the process, I have learned to be more patient and persist.”