When it comes to clean labels, U.S. macro breweries could teach better-for-you food companies a thing or two.
Beginning in the 1960s, big beer companies switched from hop cones to chemically extracted hop oil to impart some bitterness in their lagers. Hexane and methylene chloride were the organic solvents of choice, but breweries wanted something cleaner.
The answer, beginning in the early 1990s, was carbon dioxide. When heated to 304°F inside an autoclave chamber and subjected to several thousand pounds of pressure, CO2 becomes a supercritical fluid that captures the aromatics and bitterness of the hop.
Washington’s Yakima Valley grows 80 percent of America’s hops. It is home to three supercritical extraction plants, including John I. Haas Inc., which purchased a press in 1991from Uhde High Pressure Technologies GmbH for the hop-oil extraction process.
Twenty-four years later, Uhde—now a unit of ThyssenKrupp—sold another press in the U.S. market. This time, however, it is used in a broader and more dynamic application: pasteurization of a wide variety of solid and liquid foods via high hydrostatic pressure processing (HPP). A 350-liter machine from Uhde was commissioned at Houston-based Texas Food Solutions in November, according to Jasmine Sutherland, TFS president, with a second 525-liter press from Avure Technologies scheduled to come on line in 2016’s first quarter.
Sutherland also heads Perfect Fit Meals, a maker of refrigerated single-serve entrees sold through retail. Those products will be pasteurized in the Uhde machine, but TFS is principally a toller, with four high-capacity machines planned.
A perfect storm of customer demand and a growing consumer market for clean labels and minimal thermal treatment have conspired to make HPP pasteurization one of the hottest trends in food processing. Approximately 200 machines are up and running in North America, and HPP tolling is driving today’s growth.
“The HPP tolling business is probably our largest segment right now,” says Jaime Nicolas-Correa, director of Hiperbaric USA, Miami, one of three OEMs active in the market. Cam Yildirim, strategic market development manager at Multivac, concurs: Tollers constitute three in five firms he is speaking to about the Uhde machine, which Multivac represents in North America.
Progressive grocers are encouraging their suppliers to apply the technology. “We require end results on microbial hold, and that’s one of the best ways to get there,” says Craig Wilson, vice president of Seattle-based Costco. The club store operates its own ground beef and hot dog plants, and those products pass through tollers before heading to stores. “We use it all the time, and we really encourage our suppliers to avail themselves of it,” adds Wilson.
“Consumers want nutritious, great-tasting food made with fewer artificial ingredients,” seconds Bill Strassburg, vice president-strategic planning at Rochester-based Wegmans supermarket chain. “We believe (HPP) is the future in food processing for many different products.”
Wegmans is helping fund a HPP pilot plant at Cornell University along with LiDestri Food & Beverage, a private-label manufacturer that Wegmans encouraged to launch Finger Lakes Fresh Press, a Rochester, N.Y., tolling service that begins commercial operations in early 2016.
Subway stipulates HPP as a food-safety step for deli meats bound for its restaurants, a requirement that’s helping fill production schedules at Canada’s only HPP toller. The requirement also drove the purchase of five HPP machines by Liberty Foods, including two acquired in an asset purchase of a bankrupt meat processor and toller. Liberty would consider using machines with excess capacity to pasteurize another company’s products, a company representative said, but Liberty is not in the tolling business.
HPP machines are housed in at least nine cold storage facilities, including space leased in West Sacramento, Calif., by Milwaukee-based American Pasteurization Co. Six years ago, the FDA validated a process for shelf-stable mashed potatoes from the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, but no shelf-stable commercial product has yet been produced in the U.S. Pasteurized products require refrigeration, and that’s cold storage’s competence.
More than refrigeration is needed, however, and new tollers are distinguishing themselves with expanded services. Nutrifresh Services, a subsidiary of NJ Frozen Storage in Edison, N.J., opened the New York metro area’s first HPP tolling facility in fall 2014 with a single 300-liter machine from Hiperbaric. A third press will be installed in February, according to Chris Jenkins, director-HPP operations, and recently Nutrifresh augmented its capabilities with a bottling line that can output 80,000 bottles per day. The line caters to fruit and vegetable growers eager to tap into the cold-pressed juice trend. “We can press, squeeze and blend everything at our facility,” reports Jenkins.