LCU students working to cut risk of salmonella in peanut butter

Published: May. 7, 2014 at 10:45 PM CDT
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Bryan Hettick helps with peanut research project.
Bryan Hettick helps with peanut research project.

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - Peanut samples from all over the country are being tested at Lubbock Christian University.

A chemistry professor and her undergraduate students are trying to lower the chance of salmonella making its way into peanut butter jars.

Doctor Julie Marshall is a professor of chemistry at LCU. Her primary mission is to provide opportunities for undergraduates to participate in real world research that benefits the community.

She started working with peanut companies about ten years ago. She said Lubbock is the perfect place for this research because it's uniquely rural and urban, and West Texans understand the importance of agriculture in the community.

The smell of peanut butter greets you at the door when you walk into Dr. Marshall's LCU lab.

"We want to make sure food is safe, delicious and nutritious," Dr. Marshall said.

Doctor Marshall consults with the major clients like the JM Smucker's Company, whose brands include JIF peanut butter, and the Birdsong Peanut Company, which has a location in Brownfield.

"We look at the quality, particularly the oil chemistry, the nutrition of the peanut... We look at how it's going to taste and perform for various clients," Dr. Marshall said.

Doctor Marshall said a board of panelists with extensive knowledge survey incoming crops, which includes taste testing, with some samples scoring much higher than others.

"We have answered questions about peanut butter, peanut allergies, about how it might be possible to cut down on some of the microbial contaminates without damaging the peanut product itself," Dr. Marshall said.

"Microbial contaminates are the ones that can cause illness when there is an outbreak. Peanuts are grown in the field. Anything that comes from outside is going to have bacteria, and other things on it, but is there a way we can help control that? Could we put something on the front end to help control or kill microbes, so when they do get into the manufacturing process and the killing and the roasting of the peanuts is equal and destroys everything?" Dr. Marshall asked.

Recent LCU graduate Bryan Hettick experimented with UV light. He said the research conducted proves to be very promising and could reduce the chance of salmonella if used in conjunction with roasting.

It's an undergraduate research project that has encouraged Hettick to pursue a career in medical research.

"That's what got me into science in the first place...wanting to make that kind of difference and being able to help people in a way that no one else has yet," Hettick said.

One goal of many Dr. Marshall is happy to have achieved.

"Did you think ten years ago, it would develop into something like this, your research?" KCBD asked.

"Never in a million years, never," Dr. Marshall said.

Dr. Marshall said Hettick's research about UV  light being used with the roasting process should show conclusive results within the next two to three years.

After working with peanuts and peanut butter for ten years, does Dr. Marshall still have an appetite for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

Dr. Marshall laughed and said loving peanuts is probably a requirement in this field, but after all of this research, she is more picky and definitely a more knowledgeable consumer.

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