Microwave-Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS)
MATS technology takes the traditional retort process to another level
Many readers will have read an article by Jeffrey Dastin in The Globe and Mail that appeared on Aug. 12 entitled “Amazon looks at new food technology for home delivery.” The new food technology mentioned in the article is Microwave-Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS). Eager to learn more about MATS, I contacted 915 Labs, the company that has the worldwide license to manufacture and market the MATS technology. Here is some of what I learned about MATS.
MATS was developed in 1998 at Washington State University (WSU) by a team of food engineering researchers led by Dr. Juming Tang. The process was patented by WSU in 2006. Not long thereafter, MATS received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for processing products under the respective jurisdictions of each administration. The first MATS processed foods were available in Asia in June 2017. Given Amazon’s interest in MATS, I have to believe that there are a number of products in the regulatory pipeline awaiting approval in the U.S.
The rapid development of MATS in an academic environment could not have happened without significant outside funding. In this case it came from U.S. Department of Defense and the Microwave Sterilization Consortium whose members at that time included the U.S. Army and several of North America’s top food processors such as Del Monte, Kraft, Campbell’s Soup, General Mills, Nestlé and PepsiCo. The initial and on-going financial backing that MATS has received and continues to receive is a reflection of the commercial interest in this technology.
How it works
MATS technology takes the traditional retort process (high temperatures and pressures for prolonged times) to another level by cutting the time foods are exposed to elevated temperatures and pressures. Here is how it works. Packaged food is immersed in pressurized hot water and then rapidly heated with microwaves at a frequency of 915 megahertz to temperatures high enough to effectively eliminate pathogens and spoilage organisms in a matter of minutes. Added benefits of a shortened heating time are improved nutrient retention, colour, texture and flavour when compared to traditional retort processes.
According to 915 Labs, “Any food or beverage that will benefit from a lower processing temperature and a reduced processing time is ideal for MATS processing. Heat-sensitive foods such as eggs, dairy ingredients, seafood and pastas have all been successfully processed with MATS.” The company went on to say, “MATS creates a new world of packaged foods currently not available. Packaged food products possible through MATS include spears of asparagus, corn-on-the-cob and beets (in water), spicy Indian dishes and salmon fillets, each with an additive-free label.”
Equipment, capacity & cost
In addition to manufacturing MATS systems, 915 Labs also provide the packaging optimized for the MATS process. The company currently manufactures a system that processes 30 packages per minute or 1,800 packages per hour. In 2018 the company plans to launch a system that processes 100 packages per minute or 6,000 packages per hour. Actual capacities will vary depending on the nature of the product, size of package and the desired shelf life to be achieved.
The cost per kilogram will depend on the type of packaging used and the processing parameters. MATS is capable of processing across a wide time and temperature spectrum, ranging from light pasteurization to full sterilization. MATS-pasteurized products have shelf lives of up to 14 weeks, while MATS-sterilized products have a shelf life of a year. The company claims that the cost of MATS processing is comparable to the cost of conventional retort processing.
MATS may be the key technology that will enable ecommerce providers like Amazon and Alibaba to deliver high-quality food directly to consumers through their traditional distribution channels. Walmart is also keenly interested in exploiting the benefits this technology provides. Companies interested in learning more about MATS and how it might work within their own company should contact Roberta Brewster, vice-president of Business Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org