Kevin T. Higgins
Managing Editor, Food Processing
As symbols go, Tang instant orange juice is a silly one. Nonetheless, Tang was the go-to option when justifying NASA’s Apollo project and its $23.9 billion total cost. Landing a man on the moon was inspirational, but the R&D investment spawned countless advancements, like….Tang.
Of course, Project Apollo was carried out in the 1960s, before can’t-do replaced can-do as America’s federal spending mantra. Basic and applied research for military spending is exempted from criticism by budget hawks, and the Department of Defense maintains a 12-figure budget for it, but Tang Ultra and other commercial breakthroughs require cost-sharing with private industry under the Dual Use Science and Technology program—DUST for short.
Fifteen years ago, the U. S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass partnered with Kraft, Hormel and other food companies and equipment suppliers to nurture five promising technologies. High pressure processing is DUST’s most notable success, though the hundreds of HPP presses now churning out pasteurized foods don’t meet DoD’s objective for higher quality, shelf-stable military rations. Microwave sterilization, on the other hand, does, and microwave technology is emerging as DUST’s poster child of success.
Microwave applications are gradually expanding in food production, but microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) is shaping up as a game-changer. And helping push and prod industry toward MATS are the folks at Natick, at what now is known as the Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Combat Feeding Directorate.
According to team leader Lauren Oleksik, a cost analysis conducted a few years ago suggests a semi-continuous MATS line producing 150 meals a minute would operate at a cost 10%-20% less than a batch retort machine with comparable throughput. Those savings are theoretical, and the analysis was conducted before an industrial line of that scale had been built (the first will be commissioned sometime next year), but Oleksik says the analysis is driving greater commitment to the technology among suppliers of the military’s MRE kits.
Much of MATS economy derives from faster processing: an 8-oz. single-serve MRE requires about a one-hour cycle time for cooking and cooling. With MATS, process time is compressed to eight minutes. For group rations weighing 6 lb., MATS takes up to one hour, compared to a day or more with retort. Moreover, the quality impact is profound. “The benefits to group rations are huge,” she says. Field test are planned in the fall to see if soldiers agree.
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