It leaves no taste, odor or flavor, and yet - by passing the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) initial review in an extremely rigorous process - it has the potential to become the next major tool for the safe treatment, storage and processing of nearly every type of food, including meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables, in the United States.

With scientists continually studying ways to ensure the ongoing protection of the food supply, for the past several years EPRI's (Electric Power Research Institute) Agriculture and Food Technology Alliance (AFTA) has coordinated an effort to review the use of ozone as a food safety additive, and then to obtain formal federal authorization for this additive.

Though ozone has been used in other countries in food processing, and in the United States for water treatment, FDA regulations never have listed it as an approved food additive. Despite the designation of ozone in 1997 as "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS) by an independent panel convened by EPRI, this still meant federal approval of ozone use required an extensive petition for consideration by the FDA, which already has accepted it, filed it and designated it for expedited review - a major hurdle to pass since only one out of every 10 to 12 petitions makes it to the filing stage. Final action on the petition is expected by no later than next February. "Although the food safety system has worked well, it's important to get ahead of the curve, and the use of ozone as an antimicrobial agent can help the industry do that," said Dr. Chuck Sopher, director of EPRI's AFTA, which is based in Washington, D.C. "Consumers view microbial - meaning germ and bacteria - contamination as their highest food safety concern, and the organisms responsible for diseases continue to mutate. Ozone is an extremely 'user-friendly' agent that represents another weapon in the arsenal to help assure the long-term safety of the U.S. food supply."

According to Dr. Dee Graham, manager of EPRI's AFTA Food Office, ozone works as an oxidant to damage the cell walls of harmful microorganisms, thus killing them and leaving only oxygen - but no tastes, odors or flavors - as a byproduct. Also, because of ozone's short half-life, it leaves no residual in the food (unlike chlorine).

Besides ozone's initial applications as a food additive, Sopher added that it may offer other beneficial uses in the long run, such as replacing current agricultural pesticides that are being phased out of use, enabling safe storage of crops without the need for fumigation, and providing odor control in the fish industry (such as in fish markets) and in animal operations (such as in hog houses).

Sopher noted, "Some of the longer-term agricultural applications could prove vital for the U.S. economy and help maintain a beneficial balance of trade, as many nations have adopted a 'zero-tolerance' policy on importing foods that contain either living organisms or pesticide residues."

EPRI's involvement in the ozone issue stems from its work to provide innovative solutions to the energy industry, which in turn can use EPRI resources to help food treatment, storage and processing organizations adopt the latest technological alternatives.

At its most recent AFTA meeting, EPRI provided its utility members with an ozone workshop that reviewed the FDA petition development process and related issues. Organizations that assisted EPRI with the petition include the National Food Processors Association, the American Meat Institute, the National Chicken Council, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and industrial companies including Praxair, BOC Gasses, Novazone, Dell Industries, RGF Environmental Group, and Air Liquide. Numerous food processors and other individual scientists also contributed valuable data in support of the petition under the direction of primary petition writer Dr. Rip Rice, the world's leading authority in ozone science and technology.

Established in 1973 as a center for public interest energy and environmental research, EPRI's collaborative science and technology development program now spans nearly every area of power generation, delivery and use.

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