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2. ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY, Environmental and geological engineering, Food and beverages


Contamination of cereal grains as a key global food resource with insects or microorganisms is a persistent concern for the grain industry due to irreversible damage to quality and safety characteristics and economic losses. Atmospheric cold plasma presents an alternative to conventional grain decontamination methods owing to the high antimicrobial potential of reactive species generated during the treatment, but effects against product specific microflora are required to understand how to optimally develop this approach for grains. This work investigated the influence of ACP processing parameters for both cereal grain decontamination and grain quality as important criteria for grain or seed use. A high voltage (HV) (80 kV) dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) closed system was used to assess the potential for control of native microflora and pathogenic bacterial and fungal challenge microorganisms, in tandem with effects on grain functional properties. Response surface modelling of experimental data probed the key factors in relation to microbial control and seed germination promotion. The maximal reductions of barley background microbiota were 2.4 and 2.1 log10 CFU/g and of wheat - 1.5 and 2.5 log10 CFU/g for bacteria and fungi, respectively, which required direct treatment for 20 min followed by a 24 h sealed post-treatment retention time. In the case of challenge organisms inoculated on barley grains, the highest resistance was observed for Bacillus atrophaeus endospores, which, regardless of retention time, were maximally reduced by 2.4 log10 CFU/g after 20 min of direct treatment. The efficacy of the plasma treatment against selected microorganisms decreased in the following order: E. coli > P. verrucosum (spores) > B. atrophaeus (vegetative cells) > B. atrophaeus (endospores). The challenge microorganisms were more susceptible to ACP treatment than naturally present background microbiota. No major effect of short term plasma treatment on the retention of quality parameters was observed. Germination percentage measured after 7 days cultivation was similar for samples treated for up to 5 min, but this was decreased after 20 min of direct treatment. Overall, ACP proved effective for cereal grain decontamination, but it is noted that the diverse native micro-flora may pose greater resistance to the closed, surface decontamination approach than the individual fungal or bacterial challenges, which warrants investigation of grain microbiome responses to ACP.