Washington State University has developed a new technology that will allow food to look, taste, and be as nutritious as the original food but with a shelf-life of more than six months.

Juming Tang, a professor in the WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering, led a team of industry, university, and U.S. military scientists to create this technology.  The outcome not only results in food with a longer shelf-life, but also food with better flavor and nutritional value when compared to more traditional food processing methods such as canning.

This technology developed at WSU could revolutionize the way we preserve and process food.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of microwave energy for producing pre-packaged and low-acid foods for the first time ever, which is a major milestone that clears the way for its commercialization. 
“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 submerges the packaged food in pressurized hot water while concurrently heating it with microwaves at a frequency of 915 MHz–this frequency penetrates food much more deeply than home microwave ovens.  This combination eliminates food pathogens and spoilage microorganisms in five to eight minutes and produces foods with much higher quality than conventionally processed products. 

The project has been funded by a variety of sources and a number of food industry members including Kraft Foods, Hormel, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Rexam Containers, Ferrite Components, and Graphic Packaging.  The WSU team worked closely with process authorities of the Seafood Products Association in Seattle, and Hormel to authorize validation procedures and in preparation of filing documents.  Also, WSU faculty members including those from the Food Science Department contributed to the success of the project.

Senior research fellow at Kraft Foods, Evan Turek, said Tang’s new technology will make a huge difference in 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.”

“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.”

“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.

Dean of the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, Dan Bernardo, 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,” Bernardo 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.”

“It is important across a range of applications,” Ralph Cavalieri director of the WSU Agricultural Research Center 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 support from a variety of sectors was necessary for the project’s success. 

“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.”

In an attempt to support Washington’s agricultural and food industry, Sen. Murray said we must ensure funding for projects such as Tang’s, which will benefit the nation and world. 

“This is great news for WSU, our growers, and American food processors,” Sen. Murray said. “It will help our growers and processors stay more competitive in the global marketplace and increase food safety for consumers.”