Beaming with sterility

Mark A. DeSorbo

Could ultra-safe products be on the horizon with the increasing acceptance of antibacterial technology?

The food industry is aggressively employing new methods to lessen instances of sickness and death by minimizing in-store meat handling, purchasing specially antibacterial-treated equipment and taking extra care when training employees in the federal Hazard and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system.

Some processors, like Huisken Meats (Minnesota) began zapping products with electronic pasteurization devices last year, while some grocers, like Hy-Vee Inc., a Midwest supermarket chain, stock the cases with irradiated hamburger patties.

But the idea of blasting products with some high-tech ray, let alone distributing goods beamed with electricity, radiation, ultraviolet light and ozone to become virtually pathogen free, has been met with some reluctance.

Bernard Rogan, spokesperson for Shaw's Supermarkets Inc. (West Bridgewater, MA), says the technology is indeed welcomed and needed, but a lack of urgency remains.

“The market demand just isn't there yet,” Rogan says. “It is very costly and there is not enough third-party support out there. There has to be some way to easily irradiate or pasteurize the product at great volumes, but if we knew that customers wanted it, we'd get it.”

Unlike the medical device field where sterility is mandated, food products, bulk ingredients and cosmetics, do not require it, says Michael Stern, manager of applications development and technical services for E-Beam Services Inc., a Cranbury, NJ-based third-party processor.

The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the Quality System Review, which includes a validation process, however, monitors the sterilization process when it used to sterilize any product. The International Organization for Standardization has also published the ISO 11137 standard for the sterilization of health products using radiation.

E-Beam Services is active in 12 different markets, sterilizing hundreds of products in food, cosmetic, plastic, packaging, bulk ingredients and medical device markets. It operates five electronic pasteurization machines, two in Cranbury. The Plainview, NY facility processes specific, yet undisclosed products, while the Lebanon, OH plant processes 80 percent of what the New Jersey sites can handle. The West Lafayette, IN, where Purdue Chicken is located, is used to impart electric wire and telecommunications cable with heat-, chemical- and abrasion-resistant properties.

San Diego-based Titan Corp.'s SureBeam has been used by Huisken for more than a year to treat beef patties. At the time of this report, SureBeam had been awarded a U.S. patent for a technological advancement that allows a single electron beam machine to simultaneously process food products of various sizes and densities.

Companies, like SureBeam and like E-Beam Services, see the food processing industry as the next trail to blaze

“This is our next growth area-to prevent contamination and food-related poisonings and illnesses,” Stern says. “Irradiating the food will greatly reduce that deaths and illness.”

And Stern believes E-Beam's services and those of other third-party processors have been long awaited.

Sterile processing platforms follow the general principal of placing a product within the target range of the beam and exposing it for a matter of seconds.

The mediums, however, differ. Electronic beam systems, like SureBeam's, use commercial energy to send streams of electrons fast enough to equal three to 10 million volts. About one to 50 kilowatts of power penetrate the food and the packaging, creating ions that break a microorganisms DNA.

Gas pressure from ultraviolet light, which has been used since the 1920s, works in the same fashion, disintegrating DNA and reproductive catalysts of bacteria, viruses, yeasts and molds.

Ozone, a powerful oxidant, is a gas that is naturally poisonous to bacteria and is used to deodorize air, purify water and treat industrial waste. Irradiation uses gamma radiation, Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137, to deeply penetrate food and kill pathogens and microorganisms.

E-beam uses machines manufactured by IBA (Belgium); Radiation Dynamics Inc. (Edgewood, NY), which was recently purchases by IBA; Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (Japan) and the former Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. Many machines carry a prices tag in upward of $10 million.

“Many medium sized companies just can't afford that capital outlay. This is more economical,” Stern says. “The cost of transportation is often more expensive than the cost of irradiation.”

A manufacturer of plastic resin pellets can expect to pay $.15 to $.20 cents per pound, while boxes of various products can cost $.75 cents to $4 per box, depending on the size of the parcel.

The product is usually placed in a polyethylene bag, which is placed in and the box is processed,” Stern says. “The bag inside the bottle 10^6 sterility assurance level (SAL). That means less than two per million are not sterile.”

Setting the stage
Irradiated products are found in supermarkets, Shaw's Rogan says, noting that McCormick Spices are treated before they hit the grocer's shelves.

“They are the exception,” he says, adding that the stage has yet to be set for emerging food-pathogen killing technologies.

“States have laws against [irradiation and pasteurization],” Rogan says. “Maine does not allow irradiated products, except for spices, into the state. That would have to be changed in order to gain acceptance of the technology. You'd also have to go back and find out why and educate consumers about it.”

The technology promises to provide healthier living, and the demand for treated foods, he says is inevitable.

“I'm sort of a futurist. It might take a disaster, a rash of deaths, for it to catch on. When an E. coli situation breaks out, everyone turns to look for an answer, and I think that's what's prompted the emergence of a lot of this technology,” Rogan says.


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