Saturday, November 1, 2008

Just breathe, another day, just believe

Sometimes I have been accused of focusing on one minor aspect of a situation, to the exclusion of all of the important stuff related to the sitatuion.


Robert Scoble recently wrote about Maverick Brands/Sunkist Naturals. It was a wide-ranging post, discussing the agricultural history of the Silicon Valley, the importance of distribution strength in a retail business model, the need to locate factories near transportation corridors, the difference between small and large companies regarding cost containment, and, most importantly, whether or not Maryam likes the product.

Forget all that. The part that interested me most in Scoble's post was this:

they have a high-tech factory that has no oxygen. Workers basically have to wear space suits to work inside the packing plant. This lets them ensure quality and also keep the product fresher longer (oxygen ruins fruit and causes rapid spoilage, even if refrigerated).

Now that's a story. And it's not a new story, because Popular Mechanics was talking about a similar factory - not a food factory - in 1959:

EXOTIC metals that can survive the heat barrier of hypersonic flight soon will be mill-worked at a white-hot 4,000 degrees in a forbidding atmosphere of argon gas, similar to that inside an incandescent light bulb.

Men working in this out-of-the-world gas-chamber metal mill will wear “space suits,” trailing umbilical cords plugged into air-breathing and exhaust manifolds.

Should a lifeline break, a man might live a minute or two—as helpless as if he were out in space or under water without an oxygen supply. Crash doors will provide a quick escape. But in case he is injured or some obstacle gets in the way, he will have an emergency air capsule to keep him alive until rescue comes.

“Fire cannot burn in it.” Argon, a rare element in air, is a by-product of plants that extract oxygen and nitrogen from air. It is an inert gas, which means that it does not react with other materials. Fire cannot burn in it, because there is no oxygen. In an incandescent light bulb, it protects the delicate filament from burning out.

In the new In-Fab (inert-fabrication) plant, argon will be used for much the same purpose. Metals known as “refractories,” which maintain their strength at extreme temperatures, do not get along with two enemies contained in air”oxygen and nitrogen”when raised to the heat at which they are best worked.

More here.

When you take oxygen away, weird things happen.

Near Ellensburg, Washington there is a petrified ginkgo forest. This dates the trees as having been native to that area 15,000,000 years ago!. That was before the Rocky Mountains were born. That area was a rain forest at that time. Today it is a desert plateau right near Vantage, Washington on a high, dry plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

When the earth opened up and belched lava, the molten flow blanketed the land where the forests had stood. The trees were green and wet. No oxygen was present to permit them to burn. So they turned to stone.

But back to Maverick Brands/Sunkist Naturals. Their process is described on their website:

Our products are made in a class 100 clean room and are cold sterile filled. What does this mean? First, our bottles are sterilized and taken into a room devoid of oxygen. Next, moments after being flash pasteurized, each luscious drop is poured into our unique, custom-designed bottles. As an extra precaution, we flush the top with nitrogen before capping, to prevent oxygen from entering. So you might hear a little psst when you open the cap. Just like you and I need oxygen, so do most microorganisms. If this weren't enough, we've specially lined our bottles and caps to protect each tantalizing drop during transport. We think we are doing a good job. Where our competitors typically have <100 ppm of bacteria in their bottle, ours are an undetectable <1, even after 60 days on the shelf.

But you don't need a fancy-dancy factory to achieve oxygen-less food preservation. The University of Georgia:

There are numerous types of equipment being marketed for vacuum packaging food at home. They vary greatly in technological sophistication and price, and usually are called vacuum packaging machines or vacuum sealers. These machines may extend the storage time of refrigerated foods, dried foods and frozen foods....

Producing a vacuum means removing air from the contents of a package. Oxygen in environmental air does promote certain reactions in foods which cause deterioration of quality. For example, oxidative rancidity of fats in food and certain color changes are promoted by the presence of oxygen. Therefore, removal of oxygen from the environment will preserve certain quality characteristics and extend the food's shelf life based on quality....

[W]hat is most likely to be eliminated is growth of spoilage bacteria. The bacteria that normally spoil the quality of food in noticeable ways (odor, color, sliminess, etc.) like to have oxygen in the environment. If able to multiply on foods, these spoilage bacteria can let you know if a food is going bad before it reaches the point it makes someone sick. In an almost oxygen-free environment like vacuum packaging produces, the spoilage bacteria do not multiply very fast so the loss of food quality is slowed down.

Note, however, that while your food may not spoil, there are other hazards:

Some pathogenic (illness-causing) bacteria, however, like low-oxygen environments and reproduce well in vacuum-packaged foods. In fact, without competition from spoilage bacteria, some pathogens reproduce even more rapidly than in their presence. These bacteria often do not produce noticeable changes in the food, either. In the vacuum-packaged environment, food may become unsafe from pathogenic bacterial growth with no indicators to warn the consumer; the bacteria that would also normally be multiplying and spoil food in ways to make it unappealing (odor, sliminess, etc.) are not able to function without enough oxygen.

Sphere: Related Content
blog comments powered by Disqus