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Invention May Help Improve School Lunch

National School Lunch Week is being held this month, and Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers have provided another reason to celebrate—a new technology that holds promise to make students’ mealtimes safer and more appealing.

It all started several years ago when school food-service personnel noticed that there were too many bone fragments in poultry used to make meals for the National School Lunch Program. The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child-care institutions. About 31 million children participate in the program each weekday during the school year.

Complaints from school food-service providers led to researchers at the ARS Environmental Microbial and Food Safety Laboratory (EMFSL), in Beltsville, Maryland, being asked to come up with a method to help meat producers detect bone fragments. “The meat comes from processing plants and is made into little cubes for use in dishes such as chicken nuggets,” says Alan Lefcourt, a biomedical engineer with the laboratory.

EMFSL physicist Moon Kim, agricultural engineer Yud-Ren Chen (retired), and Lefcourt invented and patented the method, which also detects fragments in fish products.

The novel technique uses fluorescence spectroscopic imaging to detect bone fragments on or near the surface of mechanically deboned meat during processing. It works by illuminating the surface of the processed meat with ultraviolet or visible light, which elicits detectable fluorescence responses from any animal bone or shell fragments present.

An objective in developing the invention was to provide a high-speed method capable of detecting the bone fragments without interfering with existing processing-line speeds or procedures. The patent could ultimately improve school lunches once the technology is licensed to, for example, meat processors for incorporation into their production lines.

“This will help ensure bone-fragment-free products,” says Kim.

This research supports the USDA priorities of ensuring food safety and of improving children’s nutrition and health.—By Rosalie Marion Bliss, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Moon Kim and Alan Lefcourt are with the USDA-ARS Environmental Microbial & Food Safety Laboratory, 10300 Baltimore Ave., Bldg. 303, Beltsville, MD 20705-2350; (301) 504-8450 ext. 245 [Kim], (301) 504-8450 ext. 258 [Lefcourt].

"Invention May Help Improve School Lunch" was published in the October 2010 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

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