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Toss the Toxics: Prof. Lauded at State House

Helps Food Manufacturers Find Safer Cleaning Options

Little Leaf Farms and UML
Tim Cunniff of Little Leaf Farms with UMass Lowell Provost Michael Vayda, Asst. Prof. Boce Zhang and Vice Chancellor of Research and Innovation Julie Chen at the State House for the TURI Champions of Toxics Use Reduction Award ceremony.

06/20/2018
By Karen Angelo

Kettle Cuisine, a handcrafter of small-batch, all-natural soups located in Lynn, wanted to replace sodium hydroxide, a toxic chemical used to clean the kettles that can cause severe burns. 

A second food manufacturer, Little Leaf Farms in Devens, grows lettuce in plastic growing containers in a 5-acre greenhouse. The small business was hunting for a way to fight the growth of algae that competed with the lettuce without using harsh chemicals. 

Both companies turned to UML’s Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) for help finding safer cleaning alternatives. TURI enlisted the help of food safety expert Asst. Prof. Boce Zhang in the Department of Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences. Zhang and his students tested the effectiveness of safer cleaning methods and formulations to verify that the alternative solutions worked and met food safety regulations. 

Asst. Prof. Boce Zhang and his students conducted testing onsite at Little Leaf Farms in Devens and at the Saab Center to verify the cleanliness of its lettuce-growing containers.
TURI recently recognized Zhang’s accomplishments by honoring him with the Academic Champion of Toxics Use Reduction Award at the State House. He was one of 12 honorees, which also included Little Leaf Farms and Kettle Cuisine. 

At the recognition event, Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen introduced Zhang as a food safety expert who found ways to bring industry and researchers together to help Massachusetts companies. 

“Assistant Professor Zhang’s expertise and willingness to partner with TURI and industry is a valuable resource for the Commonwealth,” said Chen. “We also appreciate that he involved students in the research process. They gained experience applying research to help companies find innovative ways to reduce toxics at the source.” 

TURI Business and Industry Program Manager Joy Onasch, who oversaw the projects, says that the test results for both companies look promising. 

“Kettle Cuisine hopes to reduce the use of sodium hydroxide by 45,000 pounds per year,” says Onasch. “Little Leaf Farms chose to use a high-pressure washer to clean the growing containers rather than use toxic chemicals. The research team verified that the high-pressure washer removed the algae at a lower temperature setting.” 

Alan Gilbert receives the Champion of Toxics Use Reduction award from Joy Onasch.
Alan Gilbert, health and safety manager at Kettle Cuisine in Lynn, receives the Champion of Toxics Use Reduction award from Joy Onasch.
Before arriving at the university in 2016, Zhang worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An expert on food safety, foodborne illness and food poisoning, he understands the complex issues that food manufacturers face. 

“Although I’ve been working on food safety for over 10 years, reducing toxics in manufacturing was new for me until I met TURI staff,” said Zhang. “Finding safer manufacturing solutions makes sense because it promotes the well-being of the general public, workers, the environment and sustainable agriculture.” 

In addition to Zhang, Kettle Cuisine and Little Leaf Farms, TURI presented the Champions of Toxics Use Reduction Awards to the following organizations: 

  • Lytron, a supplier of liquid cooling solutions in Woburn, for working with the TURI Lab to phase out trichloroethylene (TCE) from its cleaning process. 
  • US Pack of Leominster, a contract manufacturer of custom liquid specialty products, for investing in capital equipment that reduces the uses of acetone, ethylene glycol and methanol. 
  • The Auto Collision Shop at Assabet Valley Technical High School, Marlborough for using a water-based paint-gun washing solution that eliminates the use of hazardous solvents. 
  • Walker's Gymnastics and Dance in Lowell for purchasing foam pit cubes that don’t contain flame-retardant chemicals to protect the health of children. 
  • The Field Fund, Inc. in Martha's Vineyard for preserving and maintaining Martha's Vineyard's playing fields using an organic systems-based approach rather than installing synthetic fields. 
  • Silent Spring Institute of Newton and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition of Franklin for educating high school students about how to reduce their exposure to common toxic chemicals. 
  • The town of Williamstown for hosting training programs on reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides that may be harming bee populations. 
  • The Worcester Public Schools for piloting and evaluating safer cleaning and disinfection products in kitchens and school buses.