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Could Hydrogen Peroxide Stop Global Starvation?

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) has long been used by produce distributors to reduce spoilage during shipment. The oxygen-rich substance apparently helps slow bacteria growth and acts as a natural preservative for fruits and vegetables.

Assuming we're eating the food we put in our fridge, many of those products should have a healthy, ecologically-safe shelf life. Studies show that despite the handy preservative, an amazing amount of the food we buy here in North America (40 percent) goes to waste.

But in other areas of the world, there may be other reasons for the food loss, such as distance, adverse climate issues and shipping delays. That's what prompted an Israeli company that develops H2O2-rich preservative solutions to give some thought to the problem.  Israel-based Pimi Agro believes that if hydrogen peroxide dips can protect produce during routine shipping and sale, it should be able to extend the life of much larger food shipments, such as those heading to areas that have been devastated by famine or natural disaster.

Israeli markets often face many challenges when it comes to getting the country's sizable fruit and vegetable exports to market during warm-weather months. Citrus fruits, sweet potatoes and table potatoes are all often at risk during transport. Increased temperatures make it even more difficult to ensure that food products purchased around the world remain fresh to the point of sale.

And that is where Pimi Agro comes in. The company has developed a number of eco-friendly dips and sprays for organic produce comprising stabilized hydrogen peroxide (STHP) and other ingredients that it says are eco-friendly. The combinations arrest deterioration that is caused by bacteria and natural causes. Over the last 15 years, it has developed a variety of solutions to address different spoilage or growth issues in onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and fruits. According to Pimi’s chief technology officer and founder, Nimrod Ben-Yehuda, the company's success has relied on meticulous research -- and finding the right proprietary solution for the specific kind of produce and problem.  Just applying hydrogen peroxide to the produce will, in many cases, advance rot -- not arrest it. But according to Ben-Yehuda, the company's calibrated solutions both sterilize and slow the deterioration that lead to food poisoning.

“Listeria, which has been a culprit in many cases of recent food poisoning … is killed within 60 seconds” once the product is applied, Ben-Yehuda told the Times of Israel.

It’s estimated that a third to a half of the produce that is shipped across the world doesn’t make it to its port of destination, largely due to spoilage. But Ben-Yehuda doesn’t believe that needs to be the case. He says that the company’s products, when applied, will extend the life of many types of produce up to 10 weeks.

“You could walk from one end of India to the other over a period of 10 weeks, and the vegetables and fruit you carry will still be fresh for the entire time,” Ben-Yehuda said.

Admittedly, it’s a bold claim. But instances like the current starvation problems in Sierra Leone, where residents have been under quarantine without adequate emergency food shipments, might be adverted if the shelf life of healthy food sources could be extended. And it is worth noting that the claim assumes that there is the necessary coordination of transport and delivery options to ensure the shipment gets to the destination.

Ben-Yehuda says he plans to submit a report to global organizations that work with food distribution issues like the United Nations and the World Bank to alert them to the fact that using his products could reduce starvation worldwide. And just as encouraging, says Ben-Yehuda, doing so could cut down on the need for fungicides, which are believed to be at the root of the decline of the world’s bee populations.

Image credit: USDA

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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