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Microwave Breakthrough, Cows’ Carbon Footprint, Hops & Mint, Managing Water

Posted by | November 4, 2009

Revolutionary Technology Dramatically Improves Food Quality and Nutrition

Imagine a salmon filet that looks, tastes and is as nutritious as freshly cooked salmon but has a shelf-life of more than six months. A new technology developed at WSU will make that dream a reality and could revolutionize how we preserve and process food.

Juming Tang, a professor in the WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering, led a team of university, industry and U.S. military scientists to develop the technology. The outcome results in food with a longer shelf life as well as better flavor and nutritional value compared to more traditional food processing methods such as canning.

“New processes for producing shelf-stable, low-acid foods must pass rigorous reviews by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure that the technology is scientifically sound and the products will be safe,” Tang said. “Our team patented system designs in October 2006 after more than 10 years of research. We spent another three years developing a semi-continuous system, collecting engineering data and microbiologically validating the process before receiving FDA acceptance.”

The team’s Microwave Sterilization Process technology immerses the packaged food in pressurized hot water while simultaneously heating it with microwaves at a frequency of 915 MHz — a frequency which penetrates food more deeply than the 2450 MHz used in home microwave ovens. This combination eliminates food pathogens and spoilage microorganisms in just five to eight minutes and produces safe foods with much higher quality than conventionally processed ready-to-eat products.

technicians installing new microwave system at WSU

Technicians installing new microwave system at WSU.

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Check out a video about potential users of the new microwave technology, including the Army, which wants to prepare better meals-ready-to-eat for soldiers, and NASA, which needs tasty food with a long shelf life for a trip to Mars:

Carbon Footprint of Cattle Shrinks with Increased Productivity

Discussion of the environmental impact of animal agriculture is very different when you talk in terms of productivity instead of individual animals, according to one of the newest members of the WSU Department of Animal Sciences.

“You can’t just talk about ‘the cow,’” said Jude Capper, assistant professor of animal science. “We have to think about it on an output basis, whether it’s milk, beef, pork or poultry. From 1944 to 2007, the carbon footprint of the cow has doubled, but during that same time period, the carbon footprint per gallon of milk has decreased by more than two-thirds.”

Capper said milk production has grown from approximately 5,000 pounds per cow in 1944, when there were approximately 25.6 million dairy cows in the United States, to approximately 20,000 pounds per cow in 2007, when there were just 9.2 million dairy cows in the nation.

She attributes this increased sufficiency to advances in nutrition, genetics and management that allow cows to perform to their fullest potential. For example, rbST, a protein hormone that increases milk production, allows enough milk to be produced to fulfill demand using fewer cows. That reduction in animals alone has had a huge environmental benefit, Capper said, especially in terms of reducing methane and carbon dioxide emissions associated with global climate change.

“For example, if we produce 10 billion pounds of milk from cows given rbST, it’s like taking 112,000 cars off the road or planting 83.5 million trees,” she said. “The bottom line is if we improve productivity, we reduce our carbon footprint per gallon of milk.”

Jude Capper, animal scientist at Washington State University

Capper, assistant professor of animal science at Washington State University

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This article is based on remarks Capper made during a Food for Thought presentation. Food for Thought is a semester-long series of events produced by the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences in conjunction with WSU’s Common Reading program. This academic year, WSU freshmen are reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.

We hope you’ll join the Food for Thought conversation by visiting

Interdisciplinary Team to Research Water Use in Hops, Mint

Working with commercial mint growers a few years ago, a group of WSU researchers noticed something interesting: when a seasonal drought decreased the water available for irrigation, the water-stressed mint plants were shorter than usual, but they yielded the same amount of oil.

Now, with a $3.1 million USDA grant from the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, a nine-member team of WSU researchers led by entomologist Doug Walsh will be studying that phenomenon to determine how reducing water intake — also called deficit irrigation — affects weed control, pest control, the plant’s physiology, flavor quality, yields and production costs, for both mint and hops, two specialty crops that are important to Washington agriculture.

Walsh, who works at the Irrigated Agriculture Experiment and Research Center in Prosser, said early research indicates deficit irrigation has great promise for mint, and could be a boon for hops as well.

Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hops Commission, said her growers — about 40 in all — are excited about the holistic approach to the research. “We’ll finally have the opportunity to put together an integrated research program,” she said. Even though their industry group is small in comparison to Washington apples or potatoes, Washington produces about 75 percent of domestic hops and about 25 percent of the world supply. “We play tag team with Germany,” she said, vying to be the top exporter of hops worldwide.

Rod Christensen, executive director of the Washington Mint Commission, said his industry group was equally excited about the USDA grant. “Our small commission couldn’t afford to do this research without the grant,” he said.

Washington growers produce about half of all mint grown in the United States and because of its high quality, it is in demand around the world. Christensen said between 85 and 90 percent of the mint oil goes to three companies: Colgate, Wrigley’s and Proctor and Gamble.

Walsh has assembled an interdisciplinary team, with members from biosystem engineering, food science, economics and sociology.

It’s important to have an interdisciplinary team, Walsh said, because changing water intake will have a big impact on plant stress, pests, weeds and, potentially, the flavor of the crop. Besides looking at the economic sustainability of the crops, the team also wanted to look at the sociological sustainability of the crop.

“Farming is risky,” he said. “If we can mitigate some of the risk, will farmers feel better about farming? The whole idea is to help the farmer, and I think we’re going to do that.”

–Hope Tinney, WSU Today

WSU researchers in a field of mint.

This article is adapted from one that appeared recently in WSU Today:

Learn more about specialty crop research at WSU by visiting: and

WSU, University of Florida to Develop Water Management Simulator

Preventing water pollution caused by agricultural practices is no game, but game-like software simulating the impact of certain on-farm decisions could help a whole new generation of ag producers make better management choices that help improve water quality.

Researchers at WSU and University of Florida have won a $567,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a decision-making software tool that incorporates agricultural management, water quality data, economics and socio-political issues to help growers understand the use of vegetation as a buffer between fields and surface waters. The game-style program simulates and allows users to see on screen the impact of their different agricultural management decisions, encouraging adoption of these vegetative filter strips by providing a better understanding of associated trade-offs and helping to remove uncertainties.

The project also will provide much needed regional data on targeted filter strip design and placement to protect water resources in the highly productive Yakima River Basin of central Washington. At the same time, it develops novel decision-making tools that provide the basis for an interactive outreach and education approach that can be used locally and/or transferred to use in other watersheds.

“Everyone is excited about this project since the tools are unique and versatile enough to be used for decision-making by resource managers, as an outreach tool for producers and as a flexible education tool to be used in middle and high schools, as well as college courses,” said Jeffrey Ullman, a scientist in the WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

Once developed, the modeling tool will be used to stimulate the interest of secondary and college students. Working with the Yakama Nation, Heritage University and the Yakima Watershed Activities to Enhance Research in Schools program offered through Central Washington University, team members will engage Native American and Hispanic youth by using the models and out-of-class experiential learning opportunities with an eye toward inspiring a whole new generation that understands and is committed to solving water resource and sustainable agricultural issues.

Managing water resources is the subject of a new grant that teams WSU with University of Florida.

Managing water resources is the subject of a new grant that teams WSU with University of Florida.