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 Washington State University will make that dream a reality.
For the first time ever, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of microwave energy for producing pre-packaged, low-acid foods, a major milestone that clears the way for its commercialization. The technology developed at WSU 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 FDA 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.
Spearheaded by C. Patrick Dunne, Department of Defense combat feeding directorate at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass., the project has been funded from a variety of sources and a consortium of industry members that include Kraft Foods, Hormel, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Rexam Containers, Ferrite Components and Graphic Packaging. The WSU team also worked closely with process authorities of the Seafood Products Association in Seattle and Hormel to establish validation procedures and in preparation of filing documents. In addition, faculty members from other WSU departments, particularly Food Science, contributed to the success of the project.
“The team’s collective efforts have brought a new food processing technology to the forefront which will truly benefit not only the commercial sector but our war-fighters worldwide with a wider variety of high quality, shelf-stable foods,” said Gerald Darsch, director of the U.S. Department of Defense Combat Feeding team. “It is truly a tremendous accomplishment.”
Evan Turek, senior research fellow at Kraft Foods, said Tang’s new technology will make a huge difference for the food industry.
“Since the introduction of industrial microwave ovens in the late 1940s, the food industry has been interested in exploiting the rapid heating capability of microwaves to improve the quality of canned food,” he said. “The technical issue has always been ensuring uniform and reproducible heat treatment. Dr. Tang had a vision about how this might be overcome, and with his leadership and the engineering prowess of his research staff and students, a protocol for practicing and validating microwave sterilization was established. Kraft Foods is proud to have been an early supporter of the research program at WSU and looks forward to the commercialization of the technology.”
WSU officials agreed.
“This is a great example of how research universities like Washington State University produce breakthroughs that make an immediate impact on our nation and world. This new technology promises significant advances in food safety and quality to benefit everyone,” said Howard Grimes, vice president for research.
Dan Bernardo, dean of the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, said the impact of the science will be dramatic.
“There have been very few advances leading to FDA accepted food processing technologies in recent history,” he said. “The FDA’s approval of this new technology truly could revolutionize the way we process and preserve food, ensuring food safety, increasing its longevity and maximizing the retention of its flavor and nutrition.”
Ralph Cavalieri, director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center, said Tang’s research has global benefits.
“It is important across a range of applications,” he said, “from feeding astronauts on long-term space missions or soldiers in the field to transporting and storing food to areas of the world where people are unable to produce enough food locally to feed themselves.”
Cavalieri said the project would not have been possible without support from a variety of sectors.
“We have worked synchronously with industry, the army and the university to make this happen,” he said. “Dr. Tang’s research also has received incredible support from Washington’s Congressional delegation, especially Sen. Patty Murray.”
Sen. Murray said ensuring funding for projects such as Tang’s is part of an overall effort to support Washington’s agricultural and food industry in ways that benefit the nation and world.
“This is great news for WSU, our growers and American food processors,” she said. “It will help our growers and processors stay more competitive in the global marketplace and increase food safety for consumers.”