Science for You: Safer food packaging

Young girl sipping from straw

World Food Prize winner Philip E. Nelson, professor emeritus of food science, is credited with developing technology to transport processed fruits and vegetables without product spoilage. The technology, known as aseptic bulk storage and distribution, revolutionized global food trade.

More than 90 percent of the approximately 24 million tons of fresh tomatoes harvested globally each year are aseptically processed and packaged for year-round remanufacture into various food products, according to the World Food Prize Foundation.

In aseptic processing, food is stored at ambient temperatures in sterilized containers free of spoilage organisms and pathogens. The headspace inside the containers is then filled with an inert nitrogen gas.

Nelson’s interest in food preservation technology dates back to his high school years when hePhilip Nelson worked at his family’s Morristown, Ind., tomato canning factory. The canning operation was subject to the seasonality and perishability of the tomato crop.

Nelson took his food processing background to Purdue, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture in 1956. After four years of running the family canning business, Nelson returned to Purdue to study horticulture. He earned a doctoral degree in 1967. Shortly after, he was offered a faculty position.

Over the next few years, Nelson’s tomato processing research led to the first aseptic storage system. Nelson found that by coating steel tanks with epoxy resin and sterilizing valves and filters, food products could be stored and removed without contamination occurring.

Additional research produced a bag-in-box aseptic technology for such products as tomato paste.

Nelson partnered with equipment manufacturers to make the technology available to the food industry. In one such partnership, Nelson worked with a Norwegian ship building company to develop a vessel with a 1.8-million-gallon aseptic tank. Today, ships carrying 8 million gallons of food products in aseptic tanks crisscross the ocean.

– Steve Leer,