Researcher awaits FDA’s OK for microwave technology

PULLMAN – U.S. soldiers may enjoy field rations that look and taste better thanks to technology developed by researchers with the International Marketing Program for Agricultural Commodities & Trade Center at Washington State University.

Juming Tang, IMPACT Center food technology fellow, and his team have received a U.S. patent for a newly developed, microwave sterilization technology. He began work on the project in 2001 with support from the IMPACT Center, WSU, the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center. The goal was to create high quality, shelf-stable products, specifically military rations, using Tang’s technology.

“We wanted to create products that look and taste better for our military and eventually the general public,” said Tang, head researcher for the microwave sterilization project and the director of the WSU Microwave Consortium.

The consortium has industrial membership from large U.S. food companies such as Kraft Foods, Masterfoods, Hormel and Ocean Beauty Seafoods, a Washington state company.

Researchers have applied the technology to a variety of foods, such as fish, meat and poultry products, in addition to vegetables like asparagus, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and recently soups, to retain overall quality, taste, aroma and eye appeal.

Tang’s long-wave microwave sterilization method reduces overall processing time from 30 to 60 minutes down to approximately 10 minutes, by radiating microwave energy from the top and bottom, through the packaging and directly into the center of the food product. This process essentially heats the food from the inside out, which kills harmful pathogens, while preserving the quality and appearance.

Traditional methods of sterilization, like canning, apply heat to the outside of the food working inward, taking considerable time and compromising the look, taste, aroma and overall quality of the food product.

“Reducing time is key, and in most products, we see a dramatic increase in quality,” Tang said.

The project is currently working to gain approval from the Food and Drug Administration for commercial application. Currently, the research team is focusing on developing scientific information and protocols for FDA approval. Researchers are building a scaled up model of the processing unit to simulate commercial operations. The unit will grow from 20 feet to approximately 75 feet in length. The filing process is assisted by Center for Northwest Seafoods, based in Seattle. The FDA Low Acid and Acidified Team has agreed to visit the WSU facility when closer to the point of final filing.

The application to military rations is only one area where Tang sees potential.

“We are hoping to make not only quality products for soldiers, but in the future, for the space program as well,” Tang said.

Tang’s research on microwave sterilization and his pest control project, also initiated with support from the IMPACT Center, were highlighted in the cover story for the 2007 March issue of Food Engineering Magazine.

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