(June 3) GAINSVILLE, Fla. — You might say researchers at the University of Florida are in the zone. Ozone, that is.

Gary Rodrick, a professor with the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has been working with ozone for a variety of uses for several years.

In spring 2001, Rodrick and his colleagues were approached by Fresh Food Technology, Burley, Idaho, to help develop a sanitizing system that used ozone-enriched water to treat fruits and vegetables.

“They needed a system that could generate consistent amounts of ozone and chill the water,” Rodrick said.

Ozone, he explained, is an oxidant that is more powerful than chlorine, but safer for the environment. The leftover ozone dissipates back into water.

“Chlorine is not the most environmentally friendly substance,” he said. “The ozone makes the fruit and vegetables crispy. It’s much better than chlorine, and you don’t taste it like chlorine.”

While ozone was approved for use on food by the Food and Drug Administration in the summer of 2001, it has been used in Europe for many years to sanitize water and food products.

With a 99.9% bacteria kill rate, Rodrick said, the ozone method is more effective than other sanitizing methods, such as commercial fruit and vegetable washes.

The process works, Rodrick said, because of the unstable molecular structure of ozone. Ozone molecules are formed when two oxygen atoms are forced to take on a third. That third oxygen atom tends to break apart from the molecule, releasing energy and killing bacteria. The only waste product is oxygen.

For the past year, Rodrick has been testing the OzoFresh 5000, the unit developed by Fresh Food Technology. It has been tested in several Publix supermarkets. That company subsequently bought several of the machines for additional stores.

Rodrick said the machines, which look like small dishwashers, are user-friendly, requiring the user only to load the produce, program the machine, and unload when the cycle is done.

“Now it’s a matter of seeing if people are willing to invest a little more money,” he said. “But I think it will save them money in the long run.”

Rodrick said the process has been known to extend the shelf life of fresh produce by as much as two weeks.

For more information, call Fresh Food Technology at (800) 245-5518 or visit www.freshfoodtech.com.