CORVALLIS - Public demand for a safer national food supply is giving new life to a long-standing goal of Oregon State University food science professor Daniel Farkas: to put pressure-processed food on your grocer's shelf.
High pressure kills disease-causing microbes without using heat. Thus, pressure-treated orange juice still looks and tastes like the home-squeezed product.
Farkas' work in crushing killer food bacteria without altering freshness, texture or flavor has garnered OSU a contract with the U.S. Army to develop tastier field rations. Field troops who once ate C-rations of canned "mystery meat" may enjoy lemon pudding, a raspberry yogurt drink or Spanish rice.
The process works this way: Food in a flexible container is placed in a pressurization chamber for exposure to as much as 100,000 pounds per square inch. This pressure is roughly equivalent to having an ocean liner land on your finger, except this process causes no damage to the food. It does, however, kill disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli.
Farkas is the head of OSU's food science and technology department. As with many new technologies, food pressurization still is expensive compared to other preservation methods, he said. It only can be applied to small batches at a time and maintaining pressurization equipment is expensive.
But with 15 years of research into food pressurization, Farkas cites changing market demand, improved technology and increasing awareness about food-borne diseases as reasons why the time is right to take food pressurization into the mainstream commercial food industry. Highly publicized food-borne bacterial outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella have been linked to hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of illnesses since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
An increasingly sophisticated public also might be interested in the novelty of pressure-preserved items. For example, more adventurous Japanese consumers are paying up to $6 for a tuna can-sized container of pressure-treated apple jam.
Farkas said domestic consumers already can sample a refrigerated guacamole that has been pressure-treated for maximum flavor and safety. He is hoping that a new generation of pressurization equipment will encourage food companies to experiment with pressure to keep foods fresher.
Farkas' research was one of several food preservation research areas featured recently in an article on "eating safely in a dirty world" in the Nov. 10 issue of Chemical and Engineering News.