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Efficiency and Sustainability in Organic Processing
by Pavel Korzinek
Producing an abundant, nutritious, and appealing food supply is no small feat, but once produced, it must be kept safe. Food safety must be ensured by controlling a wide spectrum of microorganisms that could otherwise threaten consumer health. Food processors and beverage bottlers are challenged with controlling harmful microbes with applications that are safe to humans and minimally impactful to the environment. The growth of the organic food and beverage market necessitates the expansion of environmentally benign chemistries that can be used in food and beverage processing while meeting the strict organic processing standards.
Organic Food Market
According to the Nutrition Business Journal, “…the organic food and beverage market in the U.S. was valued at $29.2 billion in 2011, with growth projected at 9.4 percent, as compared to an anticipated growth in the low single digits for conventional food and beverages.” As consumer demand for unique, organic products continues to grow, processors are challenged to meet this expanding need with affordable products that comply with safety standards mandated by the separate and distinct regulating agencies FDA and EPA.
The food and beverage industry has evolved into a highly regulated market to address foodborne disease outbreaks such as botulism. Regulation of the food processing establishment—including food processing, processed food, packaging, and equipment—is under the jurisdiction of the FDA. The EPA is the responsible agency for regulating antimicrobials used in the aseptic packaging process. The dual agency oversight highlights the technical rigor required to offer a regulated sterilant that meets the all-encompassing FDA performance guidelines as they relate to foodstuffs and packaging, as well as the environmental controls associated with the chemical products used as microbial control agents.
In spite of great strides in aseptic packaging safety, contaminants persist in the food systems. In the past, packaging of shelf-stable food and beverages has relied on a variety of technologies—conventional retort process, polyethylene terephthalate (known as PET) bottle hot-fill, or simple addition of preservatives in the food—to achieve pathogen control. However, today the market demands high-quality, nutritional, shelf-stable beverages, which can be produced only with modern technologies such as flash-heating pasteurization or Ultra-High Temperature sterilization process and cold-fill aseptic packaging technology.
Peracetic acid (PAA) or hydrogen peroxide sterilants are used in the vast majority of aseptic filling machines to sterilize beverage containers. Both demonstrate effective pathogen control. These chemistries are environmentally friendly, with hydrogen peroxide breaking down into oxygen and water, and peracetic acid breaking down into oxygen, acetic acid (vinegar), and water.
Specialty Grade Sterilants
To exploit the full potential of the latest generations of high-speed aseptic filling equipment and to achieve processing efficiencies that yield environmental benefits, PAA and hydrogen peroxide sterilants need to be formulated specifically to address the unique requirements of each type of machine.
PAA is used for sterilizing beverage packaging in extended shelf life and low-acid and high-acid aseptic applications. A robust sterilization process is critical for controlling spore-forming bacteria of pathogens such as Clostridium botulinum and Bacillus subtilis. Special grade PAAs like from PeroxyChem are stable even in dilute form and have been known to demonstrate slower degradation during sterilization under the application parameters of aseptic filling processes. The elevated temperature of sterilization degrades PAA and diminishes PAA’s effectiveness over time. Users are able to extend the production cycle and thus reduce the consumption of the chemical sterilant agent.
Users are able to extend the production cycle and thus reduce the consumption of the chemical sterilant agent.
Hydrogen peroxide has been used as the primary sterilant in the aseptic packaging industry for over 50 years. With the increase in production rates and flexibility demands, the latest packaging machines require a much higher quality of hydrogen peroxide to reduce the maintenance downtime. Two major sterilization processes exist: bath and vapor or atomized spray. The bath process requires the peroxide to be stable in a bath at an elevated temperature for an extended time, while the vapor and spray processes require the peroxide to produce extremely low dry residue buildup to prevent clogging of the system. The choice of a high-performance grade of hydrogen peroxide, which is fine-tuned for the specific aseptic system, can greatly improve the production efficiency by reducing downtime for cleaning and reduce total cost of ownership of the beverage processor by minimizing labor time and maintenance costs.
PeroxyChem has created a hydrogen peroxide that is both stable in the bath and low in residue for vapor applications.
Given the constraints of the existing packaging processes and that these two chemistries are already widely used within the industry, the clearest way to introduce environmental advantages to organic packaging is through process innovation. Technology and formulation expertise is what will enable processors to increase plant efficiencies while decreasing their environmental footprint.
For example, PeroxyChem has been developing a vapor PAA sterilization for aseptic packaging applications. The technology uses dilute PAA vapor to sterilize plastic bottles and cartons in a highly efficient manner. PeroxyChem currently has two patents related to vapor PAA issued and granted; the third should issue in September. The technology combines the benefits of traditional PAA rinse systems with the latest advancements in hydrogen peroxide vapor systems.
The technology leaves minimal residue on the filling equipment and inside the packaging bottles, resulting in less production downtime for equipment cleaning and maximizing the production site’s output efficiency. Additionally, processors are able to reduce energy needed to remove hydrogen peroxide residuals from the container after sterilization that is expected to lower the total organic carbon (TOC) and carbon footprint.
Vapor PAA technology enables processors to decrease input of chemistry in the packaging process by an order of magnitude, as well as increase run times, lower operating temperatures, and utilize lighter weight bottles. All these efficiencies result in improved energy efficiency and reductions in water usage. Vapor PAA alternative sterilization meets the manufacturer’s microbial standards and allows aseptic beverage processors to reduce their TOC while at the same time delivering on commitments to sustainability.
Additionally, companies must look beyond the packaging process to introduce environmentally friendly practices that not only reduce energy and material waste, but that translate into cost savings for customers. For instance, PeroxyChem offers bulk handling and storage systems. One PeroxyChem customer, a major juice manufacturer, was able to eliminate over 1,500 one-way totes each year by switching all PAA needs to bulk supply, translating into considerable plastic saved.
Production plants using renewable energy, like PeroxyChem’s peracetic acid plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., that operates on hydroelectric power, are examples of how chemistry providers should be moving in order to improve the environmental impact of all chemical processing.
Innovation is at the core of what will continue to improve the sustainability of the aseptic packaging process. Each processor faces unique challenges in terms of packaging, product type, sterilization demands, and more. With the continued growth of the organic market, chemical companies and beverage processors that are committed to innovation for their own benefit and for the benefit of their customers will be well positioned to provide efficient, cost-effective solutions that meet the strict regulations of the aseptic packaging market.
Korzinek is a PeroxyChem Global Segment Manager, Aseptic Packaging. Reach him at Pavel.Korzinek@peroxychem.com.