CHICAGO — Researchers at the University of Nebraska are looking for ways to reduce the presence of contaminants and pathogens in wheat to better protect consumers.

Andreia Bianchini, Ph.D., associate professor at the department of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska, briefed attendees of the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech on Feb. 25 in Chicago. Dr. Bianchini presented research specifically focused on the harvest and milling of wheat and how bakers can ensure contaminants like cloriforms and molds are reduced or eliminated entirely prior to the mixing process.

By tracking wheat or grain’s journey from the field, to the mill and bakery, and eventually, the consumer, baking companies can avoid devastating recalls.

Various factors affect the level of contamination of specific wheats, Dr. Bianchini explained. It can be affected by the method of harvest, meteorological conditions, transport, storage and processing practices. The trouble with the first steps in wheat production is that there is no inherent safeguard to ensure wheat safety. The only thing bakers can do is ensure that the milling and processing of the grain removes as many contaminants as possible before the kill step in the oven.

“Whatever happens in the field ends up in our flour mills or facilities,” she said. “And when you receive that grain, there is not necessarily a step that ensures safety.”

Dr. Bianchini outlined three steps to better protect milling and baking facilities. One is reduce the incoming contaminant level, two is ensure the consistency of superior wheat and three is create an environmental monitoring process.

To reduce incoming contaminants, Dr. Bianchini said tempering wheat with organic acids and salt can greatly eliminate microorganisms prior to milling. To test this, researchers first studied contaminants like molds and then spiked grain samples in the lab with pathogens like salmonella. Following a thorough tempering process, pathogens were reduced 99% in hard wheat samples prior to milling.

To ensure the use of consistently safe wheat, this process must be implemented for all wheat used in a bakery’s operation. Dr. Bianchini said this can ensure the limited presence of harmful microorganisms. She added that tests have shown limited impact on the functionality of the wheat and flour in baked foods following tempering processes.

Finally, by monitoring the environment of the wheat and the flour in mills and bakeries, operations can seek and destroy pathogens from other sources like employees and equipment. Dr. Bianchini recommended that bakers and millers first collect samples from the facility, then design a program based on the contaminants found. Next, they should implement the program and monitor it for a given period of time. Finally, operators should then evaluate the results and adjust accordingly.

“I truly believe that the only way we can temper contaminants is if bakers or millers look at multi-step or multiform approaches to address the issue,” she concluded.