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Helping hand from Nature tackles potato rot

29 June 2012

Working in partnership with the biotech business APS, Branston Ltd is pioneering an innovative approach to reducing the instances of soft rot in potatoes. They’ve helped APS to develop a novel product, based on a natural process, which has the potential to revolutionise not just potatoes, but the whole of the fresh produce industry

The new processing aid, called Biolyse, is misted onto potatoes before packing. It is designed to prevent soft rots by eradicating the bacteria that cause them and is based on naturally-occurring enemies of bacteria called bacteriophage or ‘phage’.

Branston has undertaken extensive work at its Scotland site to fine-tune the application of BiolyseTM, and is now so impressed with the results that it is ready to roll-out the product fully across its three sites.

Mark Willcox, development director at Branston said: “Soft rot is one of the most common customer complaints, so as soon as we saw the potential of this product we were keen to work with APS to bring it to market. We’ve spent over a year refining and perfecting Biolyse for use with potatoes and we’ve fully trialled it and rolled it out in Scotland.

“The results there have been fantastic so we’re now gearing up to introduce it at our other sites. The timing is great; we'll soon be handling the new season loose-skinned crop, which is always more susceptible to the bacteria that cause rot, so we’re expecting BiolyseTM to really help.”

Dr Alison Blackwell, director of APS, set up the company in 2004 and has been working closely with Branston to develop the BiolyseTM processing aid. She said: “For every bad bacteria there is a specific bacteriophage; it's a tiny piece of DNA which is able to incorporate itself into and rapidly destroy its target.

“Phage are highly specific; each species and even strain of bacteria is attacked only by a certain phage. They are 100% organic and work on a similar principle to a natural antibiotic. Phage can be found everywhere in the environment and are completely harmless to animals and humans. We've been analysing the phage that naturally occur on potatoes and isolating the bacteria that we know cause potato rot, and from there we’ve been able to identify the right phage for the job.

“The key technologies are the isolation, purification and scale-up of the right phage types, followed by the misting of the liquid treatment onto the potatoes in the right concentration following the washing part of the packing process.”

Dr Blackwell added, “There's longevity to phage, unlike the chemical products often used by the produce industry which do all their work in one hit. Phage are living organisms which multiply naturally and so a constant supply is available on demand. So for an operation like Branston, a relatively small amount of liquid phage can go a long way."

Tesco, Branston's largest customer, is also enthusiastic about the potential of Biolyse. Tim Pratt, Tesco technical manager says; "I hope this will help significantly reduce soft rots in prepacked potatoes. We've been really encouraged by the results of the product so far and this could be a major step forward in our mission to constantly improve quality for our customers.

"Once the roll-out has been completed at Branston, I see potential for developing similar products in other Tesco categories. Growers and vegetable processors in areas from salad leaves, to brassicas as well as other root crops could also benefit from this technology."

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