In a breakthrough that can potentially help millions of consumers around the globe enjoy safer, tastier pre-packaged foods, a Washington State University scientist’s innovative microwave food safety technologies are being put into action by an Indian company, Tata SmartFoodz Ltd.
Healthier, safer meals
For more than two decades, Juming Tang, Regents Professor in WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering, has led research into better ways to protect food from pathogens and spoilage using microwaves—pulses of electromagnetic energy, the familiar namesake of microwave ovens.
The technology could help eliminate the persistent safety recalls of frozen and chilled foods that happen globally every year.
“We’re working to spread new knowledge and technologies,” said Tang, “so that food companies of all sizes can produce high-quality, healthy prepackaged meals with longer shelf lives, free from bacterial and viral pathogens and chemical preservatives.”
Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Defense, Tang and his team developed two new technologies: microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS, and microwave assisted pasteurization systems, or MAPS. Both use a combination of microwave heat and a hot water tunnel to rapidly heat packaged food to sterilization or pasteurization temperatures, and hold it there for a minimum amount of time before quickly cooling it down. MATS produces shelf-stable meals, while MAPS produces chilled meals.
Introducing these technologies to market, WSU and Tang licensed MAPS and MATS exclusively to a Denver-based company, 915 Labs, for global commercialization.
Innovation in the U.S. and India
915 Labs and Tata SmartFoodz are launching Tang’s food safety technology in both the U.S. and in India, where the new commercial partnership helps accelerate the introduction of MATS and MAPS on a larger scale. The first MATS food products began retailing in Asia in 2017.
Putting Tang’s microwave technologies into action, Tata SmartFoodz, an Indian customer of 915 Labs, has a 30-meal-per-minute continuous system in full production, and is currently installing a 45-meal system in a food processing facility near Chennai, in southern India.
Working with a leading automation and machine manufacturing company and a microwave technology company, 915 Labs has started the design and engineering of a MAPS system in 2020, setting the stage for future high-production systems for chilled meals.
A MATS/MAPS Center of Excellence is also being established near Chennai, India, to support regional and global companies with product development, testing, and market trial services.
“The successful commercialization of the MATS technology is an important milestone,” said Tang. “Collaboration between TATA and 915 Labs provides greater financial and engineering resources that dramatically accelerate the development of commercial MATS and MAPS systems”.
“By working together, WSU, 915 Labs, and TATA Smartfoodz are advancing knowledge and access to MATS and MAPS, improving and growing this technology,” he added. “The end result will be safer, better meals for people worldwide.”