Salad Takes an E-Coli Bath at Illinois Laboratory

To study pathogens, scientists experiment using intentional contamination

A full production-scale fresh produce flume and processing system, installed in the IIT IFSH Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) biocontainment facility, allows researchers and industry to study how high-power ultrasound technology could help improve the washes employed to clean leafy greens.

It looks like a set piece from Prometheus, but it’s actually a glorified salad-cleaning machine. The Biosafety Level 3-certified containment unit deep inside the Illinois Institute of Technology spends its days infecting over 500 pounds of salad at a time with E. coli, and then dousing it with sanitizing solutions and biofilm disrupters to study ways to improve leafy-green cleaning methods.

With the help of lab-workers in protective moon suits, vast amounts of spinach are sent down a full production-scale fresh produce flume and processing system, along with 5,000 gallons of contaminated water. When testing ends, everything is sterilized in an autoclave and promptly tossed out.

The huge scale of the tests helps simulate what would happen in real-life salad-cleaning situations, says head of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health, Bob Brackett. The Center for Processing Innovation, where the salad-infection goes down, is the only facility of its kind in the U.S. It’s a 7,000 square-foot lab dedicated to researching huge volumes of potentially dangerous microorganisms and how to better prevent them from contaminating produce.

In the future, you might be washing your salad in a hand-held ultrasonic washing machine that looks like a little blender and shakes germs off salad using one-kilowatt vibrations. In addition to the flume, the center is currently experimenting with this futuristic Jetsons-esque kitchen technology.

Your salad’s safety is backed by scientists in spacesuits—now there’s no excuse to forego your greens.