Tolling Services for High-Pressure Pasteurization Are Growing

Pasteurization with high pressure is becoming a mainstream process, particularly for juice and food companies seeking clean labels. A national network of service providers is developing to serve them.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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.

Added-value processing

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.

A start-up firm in the Los Angeles area has plans for coast-to-coast tolling. True Fresh Innovations commenced operations with a product development service before commissioning the first of 20 planned HPP machines. Buena Park, Calif.-based True Fresh HPP expects to begin operations in Chicago in May, with additional service centers opening in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast in the next few years.

Both LiDestri and TFS emphasize their food-processing roots and understanding of proper food-handling procedures to distinguish themselves from cold-storage companies in the tolling business. “We worked with other tollers and didn’t have the best results,” says TFS’s Sutherland. “We opened out of need.”

Management at American Pasteurization Co. has roots in meat processing. Top executives ran Emmpak Foods, a beef company sold to Cargill in 2001. “We’re the only toller with beginning to end services for customers, including completely free of charge consulting,” maintains Sarah Segal, an APC principal. Production runs as small as 500 lbs. are done to nurture start-ups, and guidance on everything from lining up copackers to handling logistics is provided.

Bigger, beefier machines

HPP machines are subject to frequent breakdowns, points out Segal, though reliability has greatly improved over two decades of industrial experience. Machine capacity also is substantially greater, but price points of $3 million or higher put the systems out of reach of most small and midsized food companies, she notes.

Continuous improvement is spurred by competition, and the entry of Uhde into the North American market will keep the improvements coming. At 46 metric tons, its 350-liter machine boasts considerably more mass than machines of comparable capacity, Multivac’s Yildirim says. Time will tell if it is more robust; in the meantime, it comes with the same 100,000-cycle warranty that Hiperbaric and Avure provide.

Tandem operation and staged decompression are two innovations Multivac touts. “With a manifold, switching valve and controls,” Yildirim explains, “two machines would work side by side, completely independent of one another” but with staggered cycles that allow both unit’s intensifier pumps to work together. That allows the machines to ramp up more quickly to 87,000 psi, reducing cycle times and increasing throughput 15-20 percent.

Depressurization of the chamber can create pinholes in MAP packaged products, which is why vacuum packaging or rigid plastic usually is used with high pressure. By including one or more stops during decompression, the Uhde system can maintain MAP integrity and minimize product purge. “The more stops, the longer the cycle,” Yildirim cautions. “One stop might suffice if it achieves 90 percent of the desired outcome.”

Until Hiperbaric entered the market, HPP presses required vertical loading and unloading. Its horizontal design now is the standard, and Hiperbaric’s 525-liter machine is the biggest unit on the market. Avure, a spin-off of HPP pioneer Flow Technology, is introducing a modular machine that expands throughput capacity as demand grows. Throughput capacity of the base unit can almost be doubled by adding a series of pump skids.

The Chinese firm Shanxi Sanshui Ynihe Technology Co. Ltd. claims to have hundreds of installations in China, but no systems are operating in North America. Doing business as SSYH Technology USA, the firm installed a machine in 2014 at Natural Food Works Group in Denver, but no commercial work was done. Natural Food Works subsequently purchased an Avure unit and began tolling operations in March.

Pasteurization without heat delivers food with more nutrients, better flavor and a preservative-free label. There’s growing consumer demand for the high-margin products HPP facilitates, and many food companies eager to meet that demand have been unable to overcome the logistics of getting their products to and from locations where the process can be delivered. With the continental map filling in with service options, that’s changing.

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