Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS) could be commercial as soon as 2012.

Packaged food sterilization has, for many years, remained virtually unchanged. Now, an emerging food sterilization process – using thermal microwave energy in a pulse electronic field – could transform the industry, offering the ability for food to maintain its taste, texture, and nutrient content while providing long shelf life. 

The process, called Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization, or MATS, was first developed by Washington State University, but is poised for launch by major food companies.

The technology, which could be commercialized as soon as 2012, will be unveiled at the2011 Food Packaging Technologies Summit, to be held June 7-9 in St. Louis. The conference is managed byPackaging Strategies, a BNP Media publication. The process will be presented in a joint talk from Shane Shepherd of food processor Ameriqual Group and Glenn Emory of Food Chain Safety (FSC), the company developing the technology with partners for commercialization.

In an interview withPackaging Strategies, Emory said the process could sterilize a food package in a tenth of the time of a traditional retort.

 “The product in the package is much more fresh and natural-looking, without having to use additives or chemicals,” he states. “You don’t have to adulterate food to the same degree to maintain taste and texture.”

The thermal microwaving system is especially useful for low-acid foods. Approval has already been received from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for homogeneous foods (such as mashed potatoes) and for heterogeneous foods that mix a meat or fish with a sauce. Approval is expected later this year for more complex foods, including such dishes as chicken and dumplings with vegetables, where multiple foods groups are mixed, Emory said.

Consortium includes 10+ brand owners

The technology first gained interest form the U.S. Department of Defense for its meals ready-to-eat (MRE) pouches that emerged during this decade, and development started with a first set of partners in 2001. The consortium helped obtain FDA approval, with the first certification granted in 2009.

A host of leading brand owners are now part of the second-generation of the consortium that is starting manufacturing testing of the process. More than 10 brand owners have partnered with the company for testing and trailing during manufacturing. The brand owner names are expected to be released later this spring.

The quest is to rid food packaging of the thermal degradation that occurs with retorting, destroying nutrients and affecting organoleptic (or taste) characteristics. When products look and taste better and additives do not have to be added, cost reduction opportunities for food processing also are possible, Emory said.

More details of this disruptive technology will be unveiled on-site at the 2011 Food Packaging Technologies Summit.For a video of Dr. Juming Tang of Washington State University describing this technology,click on this link.