NATICK, Mass. -- Fifteen years of development between Washington State University and the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center led to a revolutionary change in food sterilization: a microwave.

This microwave is not your typical at-home microwave; it is a sophisticated piece of equipment that uses a rapid sterilization technique to create shelf-stable food.

In August, the world's first MATS-B microwave food sterilization system was installed at AmeriQual in Evansville, Ind. AmeriQual will serve as a research and development facility for consortium food manufacturers and the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at NSRDEC, which want to explore the benefits the MATS microwave sterilization system can deliver.

"CFD is doing the exact testing with AmeriQual that a contract is undergoing," said Tom Yang, CFD's project officer for microwave sterilization. "We are testing low-acid entrees such as chicken
pasta, whole muscle meat, vegetables, and these products will have to go through FDA/USDA petition again. Most of the testing will be on MW power consistency, cold spot reaching commercial sterility, microbial validation."

This testing will begin making small-scale products and eventually transition to larger-scale assembly once it is clears the regulatory approval process. The goal is to commercialize microwave-sterilization technology, which is very likely to hit the shelves soon, since the commercial market's standards for shelf stability is less than three years and test products have been shown to achieve that shelf life.

Partnerships between people in industry, academia, and NSRDEC made this technology a reality. Starting in 2009, microwave consortium members sought Food and Drug Administration approval for mashed potatoes, then salmon and Alfredo sauce, and finally chicken and dumplings. Certain foods, such as seafood and meat, are difficult to process, and the success of these trials means that healthy food sources that used to be tough to process only now have the potential to be shelf stable and of high quality.

"MATS system can do a lot that conventional retort cannot do," Yang said. "Pasta, for instance, is very hard to render safe and shelf stable without significant quality loss using retort. That's why the Soldier's favorite, Mac & Cheese, was pulled from (the) Meal, Ready-to-Eat ration. MATS can do a much better job and has demonstrated a superior creamy Cajun chicken pasta. Many previously favored entrees can be 'revived' by MATS technology. Also, many heat-sensitive foods can be processed by MATS without significant loss of the vital nutrients due to relatively shortened process time."

This new high-tech microwave means that shelf-stable, more nutritional, and better-tasting food can be made in mere minutes as opposed to a retort sterilization process that can take up to three hours. That saves a lot of time, energy and money.

The groups invested in this technology include: Food Chain Safety, Hormel, Nestle, Rexam, Bush Brothers, General Mills, PrintPack, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Pepsi-FritoLay, Del Monte, and current ration vendors AmeriQual and Wornick Foods.

"The MATS provides a niche market for value-added, commercial shelf-stable items," Yang said. "The large number of food industry MW consortium members can attest to that. The introduction of MATS will expand the production base for high-quality ration components, and the Defense Logistics Agency-Troop Support will have more variety of ration entrees to purchase. Besides the ongoing contract with AmeriQual to produce varieties of MRE entrees, NSRDEC is exploring using MATS system for Group Feeding Heat & Serve ration entrees."