Dr. Keith Warriner: Taking Research from the Lab into the Commercial Market

Some people choose their careers, but for Dr. Keith Warriner, food safety chose him. He had always dreamt of joining the British Army but didn’t get in. After being rejected by the army, he was driven to pursue a career in the food service industry. He attended culinary school before starting his career in the catering industry, where he realized that he hated the long hours in the kitchen but loved the science behind the food. There began the journey of a lifetime. He returned to school and obtained his Bachelor’s in food science from the University of Nottingham in 1989 and a Ph.D. in microbial physiology from the University College of Wales in 1993.

He has worked for the Department of Medicine at the University of Manchester studying biosensors, and at the University of Nottingham as a Research Fellow in food microbiology working with fresh produce. He is currently an associate professor in the department of food science at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and has been at the University of Guelph since 2002. What started because of a dream unfulfilled, has blossomed into a successful career that the world is benefiting from. Dr. Keith Warriner is particularly interested in food microbiology and food safety management. He was instrumental in the research on the reduction of pathogens in fresh produce using Clean Works’ technology.

Food safety is at the heart of food production. According to Dr. Warriner, “It is a literal time bomb.” Fresh produce is responsible for most foodborne illnesses in North America. However, food safety is an implied service. You don’t go out to eat and worry about how clean the lettuce in your salad is because you expect it to be, but unfortunately food safety is not always guaranteed. A rise in produce recalls due to microbial contamination, like listeria in mushrooms, has shown that everyone should be concerned about food safety. One of the biggest challenges in the food safety industry is that businesses are unwilling to implement change because they believe their current practices are effective. 

Many food growers and processors are accustomed to traditional produce decontamination with water. Even though research has shown that water washing is not as effective as we would like it to be. No one wants to get sick or be responsible for making another person sick. Therefore, food safety needs to be a priority for every business owner in the food industry. The industry needs an effective decontamination process to ensure optimal food safety. According to Dr. Warriner, “the future of food safety is agricultural innovation like the hydroxyl radical process used in Clean Works’ technology.”

Dr. Warriner started working with Paul Moyer in 2008 to devise a strategy for decontaminating fresh produce. Paul, whose family had been farming since 1799, recognized the need to decontaminate produce with something more effective than water. After many months of research and testing, the waterless technology using hydrogen peroxide, ozone and UV light was created. Like most research, they were met with hesitation and indifference by the market and were forced to stop working on the innovative technology. It wasn’t until the listeria outbreak in caramel apples in 2014 that the research was resurrected, and Clean Works’ technology was born. Paul and Dr. Warriner persisted in their quest to improve food safety. The fruits of their labour are evident in the awards and recognition the technology has received. In 2019, Clean Works’ technology received the prestigious IAFP Food Safety Innovation Award for its positive impact on food safety.

The research conducted by Dr. Warriner shows that Clean Works’ technology can achieve up to a 4-log kill (99.9% decontamination) in 30 seconds. The goal was to reduce pathogens in produce, but the technology also increases shelf-life by up to 25%, reduces cost and eliminates waste. Today, the Clean Works technology has been adapted for easy use along every step of the food supply chain. The use of the technology extends beyond decontaminating produce. It is used to sanitize shopping bags, and boxes and was used to decontaminate N95 masks during the Covid-19 induced shortage in 2020. 

Dr. Warriner continues to research a broader application of this innovative technology. According to him, “we know that products like eggs and poultry meat need an effective decontamination process and we have that technology.” He is determined to see research move beyond the four walls of the lab and translate it into functional applications that change lives. Dr. Warriner is passionate about his research in food safety management and is funded through NSERC, OMAFRA, Mitacs, IRAP and the Center for Fresh Produce Safety to study the microbiological safety of fresh produce from farm to fork.

The food safety industry is changing rapidly with innovative technologies and new regulations. Preventative measures are no longer sufficient, and Dr. Keith Warriner’s research continues to transform the future of food safety. Focused and driven to effect change, Dr. Warriner aims to apply his research in areas that lack innovative technology. He is open to collaborations and hopes to see more research move out of the lab and into the market to positively impact lives. When Dr. Warriner is not in the lab revolutionizing the food safety industry, he’s inspiring his daughter to follow in his innovative food steps. She hopes to pursue a Ph.D. someday, just like him. There’s no telling what he will discover next, but if his past research is anything to go by, then the food safety industry is in safe hands.

You can read more about Dr. Warriner’s groundbreaking research here