Edible Intelligence: Why doesn't the food industry embrace proven tech?
As much as many writers and experts within food and ag worry about the future of something like GMO and work tirelessly to defend it from activists, we tend to overlook that GMO actually made it. GMOs aren't just the stuff of academic and private research labs — they’re on the shelves and in most foods.
There are some technologies, however, that have barely made it out of the lab. We need to save some of these technological advances while we still can, as well as ensure that we create a culture that welcomes new tech. Here are just two examples of promising food technology.
One of the technologies that has been around for a while but not widely used is High-Pressure Processing, or HPP. Originally used in chemical processing, this has the same effect as pasteurization on food. Currently, some prepackaged meats, salsa, and guacamole utilize this technology.
The high-pressure process is pretty simple. Foods packaged in plastic bottles or pouches are placed into a water-filled vessel, which is then pressurized to above 60,000 pounds per square inch. This pressure kills non-vegetative pathogens, making the product as safe as something that had been heat treated. There is some research being done that may indicate it's also possible to kill spore-forming bacteria, as well. Heat treatments can degrade some nutrients and also alter the flavor of the food. This technology makes a great counter to conventional heat treatments such as pasteurization.
Before all the talk about GMO or high-fructose corn syrup, the boogeyman was irradiation. For those unaware, irradiation is a process in which ionizing radiation is passed through a product to kill pathogens. I emphasize the word through, because contrary to popular belief, foods that have been irradiated do not retain the radioactive particles.
Irradiation, like HPP, is a cold process — meaning that it doesn't introduce heat to the product. This is an advantage in products where you want minimal-to-no thermal processing, like for ground beef. Omaha Steaks uses this technology to eliminate E.coli and other pathogens. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has decided not to use irradiation because of consumer demand.
What is so insidious about the outright rejection or non-proliferation of new food technology is that it could have helped prevent some serious food borne illnesses. Foster Farms chicken is implicated in an outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg that has, to date, affected 550 people. These types of birds are typically sent to the stores frozen and would be perfect for irradiation. If Foster Farms utilized irradiation, this would have never happened since the Salmonella would have been killed.
A new approach is needed
We need to take an approach to novel technology similar to the automotive industry, and embrace our newest advancements.
The automotive industry quickly embraces and adapts new technology. Carbon fiber existed only in Formula 1 race cars 20 years ago. A decade ago, carbon fiber started showing up in exotic and super cars. Now, you see carbon fiber being utilized in more affordable sports cars.
The auto industry celebrates its tech, and consumers then feed off of the hype and demand the new bells and whistles in their next automotive purchases. Nobody is pushing to require labels on cars that use aluminum or carbon fiber frames. Nobody is saying we need longer term studies on these materials.
The food industry’s advertising and marketing needs to embrace science and share it with the world. While we don't want GMO labels, we should brag about our new technologies and processes, nonetheless. We need a meat producer to show HPP or irradiation in ads as a way to build value in the product, to sell the food safety advantages. Food companies can brag that, because of high-pressure processing, less heat treatments or preservatives are needed.
We already have a sneak peek at what's to come in the next two years in the auto industry. Companies like Nissan and Ford build up hype around their products using technology. We need to do the same for our foods using our newest technology. By doing this, we can change consumer perception of foods from pessimistic to optimistic and take the steam out of activists’ sails.
Sam Vance is a guest columnist for Food Dive. If you like his writing, you can get more Edible Intelligence at http://edibleintelligence.blogspot.com/ As always, you can find him @samvance on Twitter.