A consortium of public and private industry and academic partners is carrying out a multi-year research project aimed at investigating the potential food safety and quality risks of microbial contaminants in plant-based food products, such as dairy alternatives.

Novel plant-based ingredients often contain unknown types and levels of microbes, and there is a significant gap in knowledge about the risks of such microbial contaminants. Many plant-based proteins come from crops that are sourced close to the soil and can be contaminated by a wide range of organisms, such as spore-forming bacteria that may survive heat treatments. Various microbes can also be introduced during harvesting and storage, or during the plant protein manufacturing process. These factors complicate the design of efficient processing conditions and stable product formulations, as well as effective investigations when microbiological contamination occurs in finished products.

The project will deliver insight into microbes that are common in more than 80 plant-based ingredients, their ability to survive processing, and the risk of growth and toxin production in foods containing such ingredients. The consortium aims to help reduce food waste and ensure food safety by filling knowledge gaps, and by generating better predictive models for assessing microbial risk and identifying critical control points. Models developed by the project will be verified with real products to identify risks, and can be used to define strategies for long-term structural solutions for preventing microbiological spoilage or safety issues.

The consortium is coordinated by NZIO Food Research and includes academic institutions Wageningen University and Research and HAS Green Academy. Private company partners include Ripple Foods, the Coca-Cola Company, SPX FLOW, Tetra Pak, Bel, Arla Foods, Yili, HP Hood LLC, FrieslandCampina, and Cosun. This project is funded by the Topsector Agri and Food.