(March 29) Of all the nasty little beasties, animal and microbial, that can put the fear of God in growers, shippers, wholesalers and retailers of fresh fruits and vegetables, listeria may rank near the top of the list.

Listeria makes an estimated 2,500 people seriously ill in the U.S. every year, according to AirOcare, Rockville, Md., maker of an air sanitization system. About one in five of those die.

A new study praises the work of AirOcare, Rockville, Md., in fighting listeria. Food Safety & Process Technology, Turlock, Calif., a company that provides independent laboratory tests for the food industry, released the study, which found that AirOcare’s air purification technology quickly eliminates populations of listeria on fruits and vegetables in produce storage facilities, food processing plants, shipping containers, supermarket display cases and other environments.

AirOcare’s technology uses oxygen ions to sanitize ambient air, killing bacteria, fungi, viruses, mold, mildew and other contaminants that spoil produce.

Bob McDonald, AirOcare’s president and chief executive officer, said the study shows the benefits his company’s products provide for the fresh produce industry.

“Listeria appears to be one of the biggest concerns for the grocery retailer and for food processing companies,” McDonald said. “To the degree that grower-shippers are using AirOcare across the cold chain in controlling and eliminating harmful pathogens, including listeria and salmonella, they are delivering safer products to their retail customers as well as to the end consumer.”

Tested under varying relative humidity and treatment times, the AirOcare unit reduced levels of listeria monocytogenes by more than 99% in as little as 30 minutes, Rick Falkenberg, Food Safety & Process Technology’s president, said in an AirOcare news release.

After 24 hours of treatments, the AirOcare unit had virtually eliminated all colony-forming units of the bacteria, Falkenberg said, even though he used large concentrations of the bacteria for the test — much more than the amounts that would be found in any food storage or processing environment.

“The study clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of AirOcare reactive oxygen species on mitigating Listeria monocytogenes populations,” Falkenberg said.

What separates AirOcare from other companies, McDonald said, is its use of a nonchemical approach using ambient air to remove up to 99.9% of the bacteria and contaminants from coolers, controlled-atmosphere rooms and other cold-storage settings.

Scrubbing the air with AirOcare air purification equipment extends the shelf life of fresh produce, improves quality and enhances food safety, McDonald said.

More than 5,000 facilities worldwide use AirOcare equipment, McDonald said. More than half of those are produce companies, he said. In North America, where AirOcare has been operating only for the past two years, the number of produce companies on the company’s roster is more than 400 and is expected to continue growing rapidly, he said.