Ecolab Inc. is hoping for a game changer at next week's National Restaurant Show in the form of a chemical wash that kills 99.9 percent of E. coli, listeria, and salmonella on cut or whole veggies and fruits.
The product is tasteless, odorless, safe for humans and believed to be the first in the industry to win approval from both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Armed with this backing, officials hope to stamp out many of the food-borne illnesses that plagued Minnesota and the nation in recent years.
One ounce of the chemical can be added to 10 gallons of water to clean 200 pounds (or one day's supply) of a restaurant's fresh fruits and vegetables, said officials from Ecolab, which makes sanitizing, cleaning chemicals and water treatment products for restaurants, hotels, schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Major clients include Marriott, Hyatt, McDonald's and Burger King.
It took Ecolab four years and a team of researches to develop its new Antimicrobial Fruit and Vegetable Treatment, or AFVT for short. Eight national restaurant chains and two local restaurants tested AFVT in establishments around the state and country.
For the past six weeks, Gabriel Mejia, chef at Isle of Capri Casino in Kansas City, Mo., tested the new wash to clean his large casino salads, pineapples, kiwi fruit, star fruit, berries and other fruits and vegetables included in the casino's massive daily buffets.
"It is really good. After you use it, you don't have to rinse the food again and you don't have to wait for the vegetables to dry. You can start cutting right away. It has saved a lot of time," Mejia said. "It doesn't smell and it's really safe."
If the veggie wash is widely adopted by other commercial kitchens as expected, it will replace the standard practice of simply washing vegetables in plain water.
It is estimated that only a quarter of U.S. restaurants wash vegetables and fruits in water treated with bleach, bromides, vinegar or other products.
Ecolab currently sells a wash called Victory, but Mejia and other chefs complained that it smelled, required the vegetables to be re-rinsed and completely dry before cutting. "Victory was really time-consuming. We didn't like that," Mejia said.
Kris Kielsa, vice president of Ecolab's institutional division said such comments caused Ecolab to act.
"Feedback from our food-service customers indicated a need for a product that is not only effective, but easy-to-use in a busy commercial kitchen," she said. "Ecolab's controlled dispensing system makes using the product as easy as turning on a tap."
Ease aside, restaurant owners increasingly feel they must protect customers against harmful bacteria that hide in many vegetables and fruits, said Dan McElroy, president and CEO of Hospitality Minnesota. He said the industry "has had some very serious outbreaks," including recent problems with contaminated cantaloupe, peanut butter and spinach.
"Our members keep careful track of that. The debate has always been how to best kill pathogens," he said. He noted that restaurants can't use soap and that most use just water.
For Ecolab, it is a coup that the new product "is considered both benign from the EPA's standpoint but effective and safe from the FDA's standpoint. That is certainly important," McElroy said.
Spinach, lettuce and other leafy green vegetables sicken 2.2 million Americans each year. Beyond leafy veggies, food-borne pathogens of all kinds kill 3,000 and sicken 9.6 million people nationally each year, said María-Belén Moran spokeswoman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just last month, the CDC reported that 81 Americans (including nine Minnesotans) were sickened by salmonella linked to cucumbers from Mexico. In January, the CDC announced that contaminated vegetables created more sickness and hospitalizations in 2012 than contaminated meat.
"We believe the patent-pending chemistry of our AFVT will help lower the number of these cases by both reducing pathogens on the surface of the produce and in the wash water," said Ecolab principal microbiologist Erin Mertz.
What is not clear is how much money Ecolab can make from the new product. Company officials estimate that it will cost restaurants less than a penny a plate to use, or less than $3 a day.
Mejia, the chef in Kansas City, said it took him about four weeks to go through one 2.5-gallon container of AFVT.
Ann Tucker, an Ecolab marketing vice president, said a single outbreak of salmonella, E. coli or listeria can cost a restaurant $75,000 in lost income and bad publicity. "So AFVT is like insurance," she said.
Ecolab generated about 25 percent of its $12 billion in annual revenue from its U.S. cleaning and sanitizing products last year. Officials declined to state their sales expectations for AFVT.