Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization improves on retorting by minimizing time-temperature requirements to produce healthier foods and cleaner labels. We interview a company principal about packaging options and requirements for MATS.
It isn’t every day that a new thermal processing method comes along, but that rare day occurred last week when 915 Labs announced plans for the first full-scale Microwave Assisted Thermal Sterilization (MATS) system that’s on order for installation at a North American food company processing facility. MATS is an alternative to retort processing used for canned foods and other products and packaging.
“Conventional thermal processing also causes significant damage to the flavor, texture, color and nutritional content of food,” says Mike Locatis, co-founder and CEO, 915 Labs. “MATS natural food processing and packaging solutions from 915 Labs provide a healthier, highly efficient and modern alternative to the old approach.”
By contrast, with MATS natural food processing, packaged food is simultaneously immersed in pressurized hot water and heated directly by 915 megahertz (MHz) frequency microwaves. Microwave energy can continued to be added to the packaged food above the water temperature.
Pilot-scale versions of 915 Labs’ microwave sterilization system, called the MATS-B (for batch), are already in place at two contract processing and packaging companies, AmeriQual, Evansville, IN, and Wornick Foods, Cincinnati, OH. The MATS-B system has ~ 30 x 15 ft footprint and outputs 50-100 packages per hour.
915 Labs’ first full-scale commercial system, the MATS-150, has been ordered and will be delivered to a major U.S. customer in 2017. Locatis said additional orders for the MATS-150, which is capable of processing 150 10.5oz food packages per minute, are pending around the world. The system has a footprint of ~150 x 15 ft, depending on options.
The technology was borne in the labs of Washington State University that also owns the patent, of which 915 Labs is the exclusive licensee of that and related patents.
Barriers, sizes and other packaging factors and options
915 Labs pairs MATS with packaging solutions that maximize the natural quality and flavor of foods.
Due to the use of microwave energy, metal food packaging is not appropriate for MATS, points out 915 Labs’ COO Matt Raider, who talks with Packaging Digest about the status, requirements and options for packaging for the process. Raider starts by explaining that MATS is much shorter (10-15 minutes’ time) and gentler than a retort process that takes about an hour. That permits options to “relocating” the barrier layer for optimized oxygen barrier and to take material out of the packaging, he says.
In a broad sense, what packaging is in play for MATS includes high-barrier plastic pouches, trays and lidding. The benchmark barrier polymer on the rigid side is ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH), which isn’t “retort shocked” as much in MATS versus retorting.
Similar to a retort, MATS operates on a carrier tray system, and is currently limited to a container depth of to about 2 inches, though Raider indicates they are working with customers looking at 3 to 3 ½ inch packages. Also factored in the processing equation are the thermal and microwave-dielectric properties of the food that’s processed. In summary, that means packages range from “baby food and dessert cups size containers,” offers Raider, “and all the way to a half-size steam-table tray” of about 6 pounds.
“Part of the model is the Packaging Solutions Program that centers on best practices around MATS packaging and will have multiple certified MATS suppliers,” Raider says. They are starting with Printpack as a certified supplier. “They’ve been involved with MATS in its initial phases,” he adds, “and we are working through others in the next three to six months.”
Is there MATS branding? “Stock 10.5oz trays used for testing are molded with a big 915 Labs logo,” responds Raider, “but any branding is determined on a per-customer basis.”
Interestingly, the MATS system can perform sterilization or pasteurization processing, the latter done simply using lower temperature and pressure.
For more information, visit 915 Labs.
Hungry for packaging information and ideas? You’ll find that and a whole lot more served up in generous portions during WestPack in Anaheim, CA, February 6-8, 2018. For more information, visit WestPack.