What is Microwave-Assisted Thermal Sterilization?

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Microwave-assisted thermal sterilization (MAT) was developed initially as an alternative food preparation method for combat zones. Now, demand for this five-year-old technology has expanded beyond the battlefield.

All humans must eat. In the 21st century, a huge amount of advanced technology exists with the sole purpose of feeding us. However, it’s unlikely that you will find a refrigerator or oven in the middle of a warzone.

Typically, sending food over long distances with minimal temperature control requires large amounts of salt, high-heat cooking procedures, or both. Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) are common field rations that utilize these preservation processes. MREs are prepared using the retort cooking method, a traditional sterilization technique for ready-to-eat food. Retorts are essentially giant pressure cookers. They can take over an hour to safely process a meal and generally have a negative effect on the flavor and texture of a product.

Subpar flavor and texture means that MREs aren’t a raging success in the civilian world where there are other alternatives. They just don’t have the same appeal as freshly cooked food. This is unfortunate for food retailers — especially online businesses where the need for constant refrigeration and slow shipping times threaten the freshness of their product.

Enter microwave-assisted thermal sterilization. Developed at Washington State University and produced by 915 Labs, it’s a much faster process than retort cooking. Taking only around 15 minutes, MATS preserves flavor by utilizing microwaves rather than the steam and pressure that slowly suck the flavor out of food in a retort. The process has piqued the interest of ecommerce grocery sellers like Amazon. Maintaining strict temperature control over their AmazonFresh products is a resource-consuming task. If they were to find a way to circumvent that step of the process, their gain could be astronomical.

So, how does this mysterious process of MATS work, and where could we potentially see it in the future?


A Retort to Retorting

When buying food, we make decisions along a spectrum measuring from convenient to delicious. The longer time spent preparing and cooking a meal, the tastier it will be. If you choose to buy ready-to-eat snack food you generally suffer when it comes to flavor. There are always exceptions, but in most cases this holds up as a general truth.

MATS attempts to turn that spectrum on its head. It is an evolution of the aforementioned retort-cooking process that uses pouches submerged in pressurized hot water. Retort pouches are airtight containers made with high-barrier plastic laminates that keep air, bacteria, and other spoiling agents away from food until the package is breached. If you have ever eaten “space food” or sipped on a Capri Sun juice, you have seen a retort pouch.

Instead of blasting food in a retort for over an hour, a MATS system microwaves the submerged pouches at 915 megahertz — a significantly lower frequency than the typical household microwave. According to 915 Labs, the process eliminates pathogens and other microorganisms in a matter of minutes.

Interestingly, sterilization isn’t the only thing these machines can do. They’re also capable of performing pasteurization. The two processes are actually very similar. Pasteurization simply requires the items to be processed at a lower temperature and pressure.

Since the first MATS system began its trial run in 2012, we’ve seen interest continue to grow. They’re now commercially available, and have been installed in several facilities around North America. With growing interest comes big business, and Amazon has expressed their desire to utilize this technology. It’s not so farfetched to think that in the near future you could receive a nice bowl of ready-to-eat beef stroganoff via Amazon drone.


Ready-to-Eat Amazon

The multi-billion dollar retail company that we all love and fear has expressed direct interest in 915 Labs’ MATS technology, Reuters reports. It’s easy to guess why Amazon is interested. MATS items don’t need refrigeration. This means they don’t need the bulky packaging that most delivered food requires for shipping. Also, the trays and packages are extremely compact and easily stackable.

Since Amazon is also moving into the meal kit industry, MATS could provide a revolutionary method to ship the individual ingredients. Right now, when you order most meal kits, they arrive frozen, using techniques like dry ice and thick insulation to ensure product freshness. By adopting the use of 915 Labs’ technology, they could prepare all the individual meal kit components and then mix, match, and stack to their heart’s content, all while using a standard cardboard shipping box as a container.

Matt Raider, 915 Labs’ COO, spoke to Packaging Digest about their future with Amazon and other major corporations:

“We can’t discuss any potential customers or arrangements, but we can say that MATS is the key technology that will enable ecommerce providers like Amazon, Jet, Alibaba, etc., to deliver high-quality food directly to consumers using their existing distribution networks. This will be the turning point in the quest to create direct-to-consumer food offerings at scale and to overcome the high cost of the geographically dispersed production, distribution, shipping and storage related to fresh and frozen packaged food options.”

The future looks bright for MATS. A contract with Amazon may seem lucrative enough but, 915 Labs also has their sights set beyond their fellow Washingtonian business.

From the military to the home front, ready-to-eat food is important, and has tremendous potential to claim a larger presence in the commercial world if quality can be improved. MATS seems to be the answer to the problem, and if 915 Labs can successfully navigate negotiations with supercorporations like Amazon, these machines could begin producing food on a national scale.

Cover Image Source: Massey University


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