Food Safety

Industry Group Pushes Wider Use And Consumer Acceptance Of High Pressure Processing

Cold Pressure Council hopes success stories and greater scientific understanding will help expand use of "cold pasteurization."

Everybody loves a good success story, so the Cold Pressure Council delivered two at the organization’s inaugural conference.

The council consists of suppliers to and users of high-pressure processing (HPP) systems, the pasteurization process that inactivates bacteria and viruses with pressure rather than heat. Formed in 2017, the council’s mission is to promote the technology to the food industry and to the American food-buying public.

The conference kicked off with Jack Aronson’s rags to riches tale, made possible by HPP. The founder of Garden Fresh gourmet salsa sold his business in 2015 to Campbell Soup Co. for $231 million and now is developing Clean Planet Foods along with the Great Lakes HPP Innovation Center, an HPP tolling operation. All three ventures are based in the Detroit area.

A serial entrepreneur, Aronson launched Garden Fresh in 1998 as a sideline to his restaurant, a chicken and ribs shack in Ferndale, Mich., just north of 8 Mile Road, the boundary of Detroit made famous by Marshall “Eminem” Mathers. Disgusted with the poor quality of salsa sold in supermarkets, Aronson and his wife began making fresh, all-natural salsa in 5-gal. buckets in the kitchen of Clubhouse Bar-B-Q for local distribution. A buyer for Meijer Inc. liked it enough to slot it in the chain’s stores, and other grocers soon followed.

With a label proclaiming, “Made with pride by chef Jack Aronson,” a 16-oz. retail tub sufficed for refrigerated sales until Costco picked up the brand. The club store demanded 3-lb. induction-sealed containers. The physics of mass and the effect of time on biological activity resulted in explosions in many buyers’ refrigerators.

“We became the highest-returned item at Costco,” Aronson confessed. At the time, the retailer accounted for $11 million of Garden Fresh’s $40 million sales volume. A $4 million investment in an HPP system became the essential fix.

“That machine saved us $150 million in lost sales,” he reports. “We started being the least-returned item in (Costco’s) deli.”

Kurt Penn also came to testify about HPP’s positive impact on clean-label foods. Penn is the founder of Good Foods Group LLC (goodfoods.com), a purveyor of fresh, refrigerated dips, salads and fruit and vegetable drinks.

Penn’s food processing experience began in his mid-20s with his mother’s 1991 purchase of an Old-World sausage maker in Chicago’s Fulton Street market. Four years later, he founded Penn Valley Farms, which tapped into emerging interest in better-for-you sausage with Han’s All Natural premium-priced turkey and poultry links. Seven years later, Penn Valley was sold to investors that assembled a portfolio of organic and natural protein products that included Coleman Natural Foods and sold it to Perdue Farms.

“We struggled to get good shelf life” for Penn Valley’s organic chicken sausage, he recalls. When he learned about the benefits of HPP pasteurization, “I was blown away by the shelf life extension.” When drafting the business plan for Good Foods, “HPP had to be part of the equation,” Penn asserts.

Natural and organic had coalesced into clean label by the time Penn founded Good Foods. With the help of a loan from a Chicago bank, the company purchased a small 10-liter HPP machine from Avure Technologies Inc. and commenced production on the city’s northwest side in the same 10,000-sq.-ft. facility that previously manufactured Penn Valley’s products.

Enhanced food safety and extended shelf life helped Good Foods win shelf space in Midwest Costco stores, kickstarting a sales spurt that overtook capacity at the Chicago location. Within five years, Good Foods relocated to a 110,000-sq.-ft. facility in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., where four industrial-scale Hiperbaric presses, including two of the highest-capacity machines on the market, are pasteurizing finished goods.

More recently, the firm opened a plant in Mexico with the goal of establishing itself as the leading supplier of guacamole. Two HPP presses, including the original 10-liter machine, process locally sourced avocados, eliminating the transportation and attendant spoilage issues in trucking the fruit to Wisconsin for pasteurization. Both branded and private-label guacamole is produced.

“HPP had to be part of the equation when we started Good Foods,” says Penn. “It’s one of the cornerstones of the business and is critical for preservative-free foods that are safe and have shelf life.”

Clean Planet may not duplicate the growth trajectory of Garden Fresh, where sales doubled every year for a decade, but that did not deter Aronson from investing $8 million in his tolling operation, which can accommodate up to four presses in a 250,000-sq.-ft. facility. “It isn’t cheap and isn’t easy, but that hasn’t stopped us from embracing HPP,” he says. “HPP has found its groove and is catching fire.”

Quality assurance challenges

Success stories like Garden Fresh and Good Foods advance the Cold Pressure Council’s goal of encouraging more food companies to use HPP technology, either with their own presses or through the services of HPP tollers. The council also wants to promote consumer awareness of the technology’s taste and nutrition benefits and to simplify process validation for food manufacturers.

The consumer education effort began in March with Evolution Fresh juices, the first products to bear the council’s Cold Pressure Certified logo on bottles. By the council’s June conference, several class-action lawsuits organized by producers of raw juices produced with cold presses had been filed, prompting the council to substitute the phrase High Pressure Certified in the seal.

Council chair Joyce Longfield says Good Foods and Suja Juice Co. soon will have packaging with the new seal in the market. Good Foods is debuting the seal on 19 SKUs according to Longfield, who also serves as Good Foods’ vice president-product innovation.

Before a processor can use the seal, it must pass an audit of its HACCP plan and satisfy food safety guidelines for its product category. Those guidelines outline the procedures for conducting pathogen-inoculation tests that validate a product’s safety and demonstrate to public health regulators that food safety standards are being met.

Validation studies can seriously slow speed to market. Before joining Good Foods, Longfield organized more than 120 HPP validation studies in both the U.S. and Canada. Until 2016, Health Canada classified HPP as a novel process. Processors waited up to 410 days to satisfy regulators that HPP did not present a product contamination risk, she says.

U.S. manufacturers face a shorter timeline, but validation tests can be expensive and time-consuming. For example, if expected shelf life is 60 days, studies must demonstrate microbial activity is arrested for 90 days.

Unlike thermal processes, HPP lacks “the kinetic models, graphs and tables” that establish the pathogens of interest for products, points out Vinicio Serment Moreno, applications and food processing specialist at Hiperbaric USA Corp. (www.hiperbaric.com), Doral, Fla. The goal is to develop predictive models to identify and account for variables like water activity, pH and Brix that might impact food safety, and then determine the appropriate process time and pressure to render foods and beverages safe.

Almost all HPP machines operating in North America were built by Hiperbaric and Middletown, Ohio-based Avure (www.avure-hpp-foods.com). Since 1997, Avure has validated more than 200 HPP products, according to Errol Raghubeer, senior vice president-microbiology & food technology.

“We are trying to build an extensive library of outcomes in this area,” he says. “We’re sort of a default library for FDA.” Besides providing a reference point for its customers’ validation efforts, Raghubeer hopes the database will help establish Avure’s credentials as a process authority for HPP.

Hiperbaric works with Certified Laboratories to provide validation services for its customers.

Raghubeer is providing the results of 50-60 validation studies to FDA in hopes of increasing regulators’ comfort level with the efficacy of the HPP process. He also is presenting the agency with the results of a study investigating the relationship between the degree of Brix and product pH and the potential for pathogen recovery. Raghubeer’s study concluded there is virtually no impact on pH during processing on products with a Brix of 20 or lower.

Juice manufacturers expressed the greatest interest in the council’s promotional efforts, says Longfield, and that product category was the first with audit guidelines. Protein foods and sauces and dips followed, and more guidelines are in the works, including ready-to-eat products, seafood, low-acid juices and baby food.

Juice products, including fruit and vegetable blends, have shown the greatest HPP adoption rate in recent years. HPP pioneer Avomex attempted pasteurization in the pressure chamber itself, but the acidity of some of the fruits caused metal corrosion. Hiperbaric has refined the approach by inserting a bladder inside the chamber for bulk processing.

Because liquid is pumped into the bladder, almost the entire chamber is filled with product, boosting throughput up to 2,640 gallons per hour. Manual loading and unloading are eliminated, allowing the line to run with a single operator. But the biggest advantage is that any type of package can be filled with the system’s aseptic filler, according to Moreno.

Store brands represent a big opportunity for HPP. One of Clean Planet’s first customers was Kroger, which contracts with the firm to produce RTE chicken strips under the Simple Truth label. “One product recall brings down all 300 items under their brand,” points out Aronson. “They knew they would not have recall issues with HPP.”

Private label also is a big part of Good Foods’ business. “Many retailers recognize that HPP is not an emerging technology, it’s here to stay,” says Penn. Adds Aronson, “Private label loves it.”

That kind of industry acceptance is moving the technology from niche application to mainstream process. The challenge now is settling on a consumer message that retailers can help tell.