The U.S. Department of Agriculture is teaming with scientists to treat food while it's transported.

new food packaging to fight e-coli
Credit: Eisenhut & Mayer / Getty Images

You wash your produce as soon as you bring it home from the grocery store—and if you don't, get in the habit—but a quick cleanse under cool water won't protect you from everything an apple or zucchini squash encounters from farm to table. And that's why scientists from the Agricultural Research Service are working to develop a new packaging—that will contain chlorine dioxide—to make our produce even safer.

Here's how your produce is protected now: sanitizers are applied to vegetables and fruits to kill microbes, and some U.S. food processors also add a chlorine wash that further cleans our produce. However, neither measure can kill off E. coli, a bacteria that can cause anything from diarrhea to illnesses as serious as anemia or kidney failure.

Scientists, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are hoping to develop a pouch packaging filled with chlorine dioxide—a gas that can kill E. coli and other harmful pathogens—that could be used as produce is transported from farm to store or market. But it's not as easy as it may sound: create a pouch that releases the gas too quickly and you can burn your produce, the scientists found.

The researchers are now working on a packaging design that has a semi-permeable membrane—in other words, breathable—that allows the gas to release at a much slower rate and will protect the produce from burning. The newest pouches are the size of credit cards—or smaller—and only cost a few cents per pouch to make.

Here's how they work: along with fruits and vegetables, one to three pouches will be packed in crates as the produce is transported. They'll slowly release the gas, which will kill E. coli and other dangerous pathogens as the food moves to the store. The intention is to market the packing to produce packers and wholesalers in the U.S.

Jihne Bai, a lead scientist working on the project, found that grapefruit transported with the pouches had 10 times fewer bacterial and fungal pathogens than the same fruit stored without the special pouches. And bonus: the safer fruit tasted the same.