Engineers will explore green future for food processing at WSU-hosted conference

Professor and CoFE '24 Chair Gustavo Barbosa-Canovas; Project Leader and Co-Chair Shyam Sablani; and Regents Professor and Co-Chair Juming Tang develop technologies for a more efficient, sustainable food industry.
Organizing the 2024 Conference of Food Engineering (CoFE '24), Professor and CoFE '24 Chair Gustavo Barbosa-Canovas; Project Leader and Co-Chair Shyam Sablani; and Regents Professor and Co-Chair Juming Tang develop technologies for a more efficient, sustainable food industry. They are pictured at WSU's food processing pilot plant.

Food engineers from Washington State University will host the upcoming Conference of Food Engineering (CoFE 24), Aug. 25–28 in Seattle, Washington, to spark new ideas for a more efficient, sustainable global food industry.

Launched in 1991, the biannual conference brings together food engineers and technologists from across industries, academic institutions, and government to discuss emerging challenges and potential solutions for delivery of safe, nutritious, and sustainable foods. The WSU-hosted event is CoFE’s first visit to Washington.

“When you make food on an industrial scale, you need a wide range of technologies, from drying and freezing to pasteurization and packaging, to bring it from the field to final product to the consumer,” said CoFE 24 co-organizer Shyam Sablani, professor at WSU’s Department of Biological Systems Engineering. “Food engineers create these technologies for everything from dairy products to pasta to ready-to-eat meals.”

This year’s conference, to be held at Seattle’s Westin Hotel, explores a green future for the food industry, including the goal of achieving zero net emissions, under the theme “Advancing Science and Engineering for Sustainable Food Manufacturing and the Supply Chain.” Experts from within and beyond the engineering community will discuss university and industry developments that boost efficiency, minimize emissions and waste, and are on the road to adoption.

“Products are generally sold in large quantities in retail markets, and the profit margins for the food industry are low per item,” Sablani said. “But consumers are increasingly more willing to pay for healthier and more environmentally friendly products. That could help offset the costs of adopting new machines and materials.”

Food companies have begun the transition from fossil-fuel-driven steam boilers to electric devices that can be powered from renewables. Sablani and colleagues around the world are experimenting with electricity based technologies such as microwaves and electric pulses, instead of using natural gas, that can more efficiently cook or pasteurize products with minimal loss of eating quality.

At WSU, Sablani studies coatings, films and semi-rigid packaging that combine biodegradable materials. Utilization of high oxygen barrier polymers and incorporation of oxygen-scavenging chemicals into packaging could reduce the volume of synthetic packaging. Other coatings help paper and cardboard cups, trays, and meal boxes stand up to hot beverages or moist foods.

“Diet is part of our health,” Sablani said. “If we develop more efficient technologies, we can produce foods with minimal processing that are free of chemical preservatives. That could contribute to better health for all people.”

Organizing the conference, Sablani, conference chair Gustavo Barbosa-Canovas, fellow WSU food engineer Juming Tang, and Oregon State University colleague Yanyun Zhao won a $50,000 grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to enhance the upcoming event. Grant funding will pay for travel by national and international experts in sustainability, circular economies, public policy, nutrition, and other fields.

The grant also funds travel by students and early career scientists, allowing these learners to take part in the discussion.

“This conference is our platform to discuss major needs, current developments, and solutions for tomorrow,” Sablani said. “It’s a way for food engineers to promote research across our different disciplines and inspire the next generation to pursue new ideas. We are excited to make this first CoFE experience in Washington happen.”

To learn more about CoFE 24, contact Shyam Sablani, professor, WSU Department of Biological Systems Engineering, at ssablani@wsu.edu or visit the conference website.

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