Scientists researching a new way of keeping soft fruit ‘fur free’ for longer have been given support by the Food and Drink iNet.

Experts at The University of Nottingham have joined forces with colleagues at Loughborough University to look into how cold plasma technology might be used to prevent fruit from going mouldy so quickly.

The cold plasma expertise is already used in the medical world to safely clean bacteria from wounds. But now the team is hoping the technology can be applied to soft fruit, like strawberries, so that bugs that cause moulds can be eradicated before the fruit is packed.

This would give products an extra five days of shelf-life and help prevent the large amount of spoilage and waste currently experienced by the soft fruit industry.

The project is one of five Collaborative Research and Development grants worth a total of more than £235,000 announced by the Food and Drink iNet, which co-ordinates innovation support for businesses, universities and individuals working in the food and drink sector in the East Midlands.

Funded by East Midlands Development Agency (emda) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Food and Drink iNet is one of four regional iNets that has developed an effective network to link academic and private sector expertise and knowledge with local food and drink business innovation needs.

“We are pleased to be able to support this innovative research project between The University of Nottingham, Loughborough University and soft fruit supplier Berryworld, which has important potential for the soft fruit sector,” said Food and Drink iNet Director Richard Worrall. “Discovering a non-destructive, non-contact and non-residue leaving process that helps extend the shelf-life of soft fruit and prevent wastage could bring major benefits.

“Our Food and Drink iNet Collaborative Research and Development funding is designed to provide help for innovative research schemes that will benefit the food and drink sector in the future, and we are proud to be associated with this project.”

The work is being led by researchers in the Division of Food Sciences in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham’s Sutton Bonington campus, who are working with the Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering at Loughborough University and in conjunction with soft fruit supplier Berryworld.

The Food and Drink iNet has awarded the team almost £46,500 of the just over £73,500 cost of the research project.

It was a chance discovery that led them to believe that cold plasma technology might be useful in the fruit sector. They had previously been using the technology – which involves a tiny controllable beam of plasma, similar to lightning – to control micro-organisms and to clean surfaces.

“While we were doing that we discovered that we could treat soft fruit with the plasma,” said Dr Cath Rees, senior lecturer in microbiology at The University of Nottingham.

Soft fruit is notoriously difficult to keep ‘fur free’ for long, as it bruises easily when handled and becomes contaminated. The cold plasma technology would present a way of eradicating moulds early in the packing process.

“Our findings showed that we could prevent that perennial problem of fruit going mouldy once you get it home. This means better value for the customers and fewer losses for the producers, who normally remove the mouldy ones before the fruit is sold,” said Dr Rees.

Millions of tonnes of soft fruit is lost and wasted each year through mould, and the team hopes this could prove to be a practical solution to the problem.

“Allowing us to try the cold plasma technology in a food context is all down to Food and Drink iNet sponsorship,” said Dr Rees.

The Food and Drink iNet aims to build on the tradition of innovation in the food and drink industry in the region by helping to create opportunities to develop knowledge and skills, and to help research, develop and implement new products, markets, services and processes. It is managed by a consortium, led by the Food and Drink Forum and including Food Processing Faraday, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Lincoln, and the University of Nottingham. It is based at Southglade Food Park, Nottingham, with advisors covering the East Midlands region.

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