February 6, 2020

ECU professor focused on bridging food safety communication gaps

Nicole Arnold is a food safety expert focused on bridging the communication gaps, whether between researchers and the industry or the industry and end consumers.

Nicole Arnold, Assistant Professor, Department of Nutrition Science, College of Allied Health Sciences, East Carolina University.

Arnold, an assistant professor at East Carolina University, says “food safety education and interventions,” “risk communications,” “consumer perceptions of food and processing methods” and “qualitative research methods” are among the main areas of her focus. She’s also worked on research for improving the safety of fresh produce and low-moisture foods.

Arnold has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science from North Carolina State University and a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech University. Produce Processing recently caught up with Arnold to talk food safety and communication.

Could you share a little about your background? 

After completing my doctorate in Food Science & Technology at Virginia Tech, I transitioned into a role as an assistant professor at East Carolina University in the Department of Nutrition Science. My research is focused on food safety at the intersection of how food information is effectively communicated to groups of people. Whether it is through verbal communication, food labels, or in popular media, food-related messages are everywhere. Unfortunately, food safety and risk messages often do not achieve their intended purpose. I enjoy working with consumers and small retailers to help bridge gaps in communication and practices between various sectors. In addition to my research responsibilities, I teach an undergraduate food science course and lab.

What projects are you currently working on? 

I have continued to conduct research and develop materials for a USDA-NIFA grant, titled “Enhancing the Safety and Quality of Fresh Produce and Low-Moisture Foods by Waterless Non-Thermal Technologies.” Drs. Renee Boyer and Lily Yang from Virginia Tech lead the outreach initiatives for this project. The three of us have worked together to assess consumer knowledge, perceptions, and potential purchasing behaviors associated with conventional and emerging food processing technologies. It is imperative to understand barriers that may play a role in consumer acceptance (or non-acceptance) of food technologies. We have also surveyed Cooperative Extension educators — individuals/the entity responsible for bringing agricultural science to the general public — in Virginia to determine their needs regarding the delivery of food processing information to their clientele (i.e. consumers or small producers and processors).

ECU’s Department of Nutrition Science resides in a College of Allied Health. The students I teach through the Food Science courses will one day become nutritionists and registered dietitians. As these students will be future communicators of food information, my team is currently developing a project to assess nutrition and dietetics students’ knowledge and perceptions of food processing. The term “processed foods” often carries a negative connotation, even though food processing plays a major role in the vast majority of foods: food safety, nutritional fortification and enhancement, preservation, packaging, convenience, etc.

How does irradiation, pulsed light and cold plasma cut down on pathogen risk in produce that doesn’t include a kill step, like salad mixes?


Irradiation is not a new technology. Consumer perceptions of irradiation has served as a barrier to its implementation; however, some studies demonstrate that consumers are now more willing to accept foods treated with irradiation than in previous years. Irradiation uses ionizing energy to reduce/kill potential pathogenic bacteria like salmonella and E. coli or other pathogens like parasites. There are many other benefits to using irradiation including extending a food’s shelf-life by destroying spoilage microorganisms, controlling insects, and delaying the sprouting or ripening of produce. The amount of radiation (low vs. medium vs. high dose) applied and time the product is exposed to radiation yields different results. Many commercially available products, including dry herbs and spices, are commonly treated with irradiation. FDA has approved irradiation to be used for lettuce, spinach and other types of fresh produce. (More information can be found here.)

Pulsed Light

Pulsed light — also referred to as “high-intensity broad-spectrum pulsed light,” “pulsed UV light” and “pulsed white light” — uses intense, short-duration pulses of white light to kill bacteria on food, contact surfaces and packaging. Ultraviolet, visible and/or infrared light is delivered in various patterns. Pathogenic bacteria are reduced/killed by radiation from the UV light or from absorbing light and overheating. Studies have shown bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, can be reduced by 4-logs. Pulsed light does not penetrate well and therefore is often only used for surface decontamination of food and surfaces. While water can assist pulsed light technologies by cooling produce and providing an even application, it is not required. Currently, pulsed light is commercially used to sterilize packaging materials (e.g. margarine containers and bottle caps). (More information can be found here.)

Cold plasma

Cold plasma is not yet approved for commercial use; however, the technology has shown promise in reducing pathogenic bacteria on various commodities, including produce. The term “cold” is actually a misnomer; instead of being cold (temperature-wise), the term refers to the absence of required heat. High-voltage electricity is passed through the air or a carrier gas, which creates reactive particles that can kill bacteria. Studies have shown that bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7, salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and Staphylococcus aureus can be reduced by 5-logs. Since neither water nor chemicals are used, cold plasma may be a more sustainable alternative to current produce processing methods. (More information can be found here.)

What would you say to a food processor who has concerns about the cost-effectiveness of implementing new technology, like mentioned above? 

When it comes to food safety, people with good intentions can still be responsible for negative outcomes. Foodborne outbreaks, especially those associated with produce, can devastate entire commodity-specific industries. While there is no such thing as zero risk when it comes to keeping food safe, you have to ask yourself, “what price you are willing to pay to keep others and your business safe?”

Is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Terminology and word choice heavily influence consumer perceptions of food processing methods and technologies. Individuals may have preconceived notions about a processing method simply based on the name of it. For example, consumers may feel more comfortable purchasing foods treated using pulsed light because it sounds more natural than other methods and because they are familiar with “light.” Alternatively, consumers may be fearful of irradiation because it contains the word “radiation,” although the scientific community has continuously assured consumers of irradiation’s safety and benefits.