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Interview with Dr. Philip E. Nelson, World Food Prize Laureate

posted on October 18, 2007 at 5:35 PM

This year’s World Food Prize Laureate is Dr. Philip Nelson. Dr. Nelson, thank you for coming and speaking with us, and congratulations.

Nelson: Thank you very much.

Mundt: You, I’m sure, were very surprised, I imagine, to get a phone call telling you that you won this award. And now that you actually are the recipient of it, what goes through your mind as you think about this honor?

Nelson: You know, it’s amazing, I’m the 28th recipient of this award. And when I think of the people ahead of me, I think what a privilege and what a company of people to be with that have had such an impact on the world food supply and feeding the people around the world.

Mundt: Many of those people were directly involved in greatly increasing the production of food which has, as we know, done so much to end hunger in parts of the world or greatly reduce it in others. Your work has been primarily in food science, in the processing of food. And this seems to be an important moment too for the World Food Prize to recognize that.

Nelson: You know, it really is. We certainly produce enough food to feed the world at this time. Unfortunately, we lose a lot of product. I just saw a quote from USAID that in a province in Afghanistan where they’ve been producing fruits and vegetables, they’re going to lose half of them because they can’t get them to market and they spoil and deteriorate. In many parts of the world, the food is produced but it’s not utilized because it’s lost. So this is where preservation of some form really can have a major impact on our world food supply.

Mundt: Preservation, the maintenance of the quality of the food, the nutrient value, preventing pathogens. I mean there’s a lot that encompasses your work.

Nelson: All of that is involved. Of course, we don’t have to spend any time talking about food safety and the problems that we even have and are developing in a developed part of the world. You know, you just magnify that in the developing parts of the world.

Mundt: These were some of the same issues that I would assume you saw when you were growing up. Your parents had a tomato canning processing facility.

Nelson: Yeah, we did in Indiana. At that time the industry was very large in Indiana. There were about 200 processing facilities in the state just for tomatoes. It was right after the war. And I can recall my father saying you didn’t have to be crazy to be a tomato canner, but it helped, because we only had eight weeks to make a decision, get everything into a can and, of course, pray it didn’t rain, all of the problems that one would have. And so, yes, I saw a lot of opportunities for spoilage and loss of product.

Mundt: Was that one of the things that you were thinking about when you started doing this research? Were you thinking about world hunger? What was going through your mind at the various points of your life when you made this decision to --

Nelson: You know, when I began this research, world hunger was not in my mind at all. Unfortunately, I was really trying to say how can we help an industry extend their processing season. So that was really the concept from the beginning. And fortunately I found some entrepreneurs along the way that were willing to roll the dice, so to speak, and make this happen. And of course, the outcome was much larger than I had anticipated.

Mundt: On the shelf in our store, you know, when I walk down the aisles, I see juice boxes, for instance. Is that a kind of processing that’s similar to the work that you’ve done? It’s something I see every day.

Nelson: It really is and we call that aseptic processing. You see it in pudding packs. You see it in a number of products. It’s not as extensive here in the U.S. as it is in other parts of the world, because those products really don’t require any refrigeration. So in the developing parts of the world where refrigeration isn’t as prevalent, of course, it has much more meaning than we have here in the U.S. In fact, we’re sort of late getting into it. We didn’t really start aseptic processing for the consumer here until about 1982.

Mundt: Was that consumer acceptance?

Nelson: No. It was actually Food and Drug regulation. The inside of this juice box package is sterilized with hydrogen peroxide, and it wasn’t until 1982 that they approved that application. It had been used in other parts of the world for probably fifteen years, and we were just late getting into the picture for the consumer package. I began my work in 1969, and so I took this aseptic processing technology and applied it to large storage of fruits and vegetables so that we could process throughout the year.

Mundt: And on a very -- we’re talking millions, potentially, of gallons.

Nelson: Millions of gallons. Our tanks now are six stories tall and six stories wide just for single strength orange juice alone.

Mundt: Now, I can imagine that there’s one set of problems that you have to solve in order to prevent orange juice from going bad in a juice box. What kind of barriers do you need to overcome to store it on that kind of a scale?

Nelson: Well, it’s incredible. In fact, when I did my research, I had no concept that we’d need this big of a container. But it seems to continually get larger and larger. Obviously, you’ve got to sterilize this container, and aseptic processing is different from canning. It’s similar in the concept but quite different in that in canning, you put the food product into a container, you close the container, and you sterilize the food inside of the container at the same time. In aseptic processing, we sterilize and cool the product outside of the container, we sterilize the container, and then we put the two together in a sterile environment. So by being able to sterilize it outside of the container, we can do this in a thinner film. We don’t have to worry about getting heat to the center of the can. And we can rapidly heat it and quickly cool it down, so we save the nutrients and the flavor of the product.

Mundt: And on a large scale, do you run into issues with pathogens that you wouldn’t have on a small scale?

Nelson: It’s only this whole logarithmic issue of reduction of microorganisms that make a large scale much more difficult than a small scale. But it’s the same concept and we have to be sure that the inside of the container, this million-gallon tank, has to be sterile, and that’s sort of the challenge. And then, of course, you have to have aseptic valves, filters. We put inert gas over the top of the material so we don’t lose the vitamins, but yet there are no chemical additives in the food product.

Mundt: I would say the largest example I’ve heard of this is in tankers of 1.8 million gallons.

Nelson: Those are actually stationary tanks. We have a ship now coming out of Brazil, 8 million gallons. It’s the length of more than two football fields, six stories tall. It has 16 tanks in it and half a million gallons each.

Mundt: One wonders if there’s any limit to it.

Nelson: You know, it’s amazing. I just am shocked every time someone comes and says can you do this. And usually I say, with my fingers crossed, yes, I think so, and they’ve taken this on. Citrus is very important to Brazil. They employ over 400,000 people just in the citrus industry, so it’s quite important to their economy. And the only way that they could stay competitive was to use this technology and ship this not-from-concentrate juice around the world.

Mundt: As you’ve done this work, you have – it sounds to me like you’ve invented processes but you have also taken the inventions of others and built upon them to create something newer and better.

Nelson: You’re definitely right. And, you know, all of these awards are a great team – a lot of teamwork. But certainly I didn’t discover aseptic processing. That was developed back in the 1940s, but I was able to take that technology and apply it to large scale. Then we also worked with an entrepreneur that had the concept of bag and box technology. And this gentleman, Mr. Scholle, came to my lab, and was able to put battery acid into a bag. And of course, he was saying, “I’d like to do this with food.” Well, battery acid doesn’t spoil, but food will, so we had to develop some techniques to be able to sterilize the bag and then put the cold or ambient temperature sterile product into the bag without contaminating it.

Mundt: And the bag would have to be constructed in a certain way so that outside elements can’t catch in, because I know, like, with plastic bags that could happen.

Nelson: That’s right. That’s right. And there are several ply; they’re usually three ply, but they’re so much less expensive than, for example, the metal drum, that now developing parts of the world are utilizing that to ship us products like mango puree and banana puree and things like that, that they can produce and send here where we remanufacture into the final consumer product.

Mundt: How do you think about the impact of the work you’ve done over a career? We have to talk about probably lives saved, and maybe there’s no number that we know, but we also would have to consider the betterment of people’s lives, the fact that the products that they consume have more nutritional value than they did before.

Nelson: And also safe. You know, we’re fortunately to live in a country where refrigeration is commonplace, where in much of the world that’s not true. So aseptic products can sit on the shelf without refrigeration. So while maybe I didn’t discover aseptic, I’ve been doing a lot of training of people in China and from all parts of the world and, in doing so, been training in the technology of aseptic processing, and that’s grown in those parts of the world significantly. We’re able to get milk to children in Bangladesh and India and Pakistan. We’re able to -- In cases of disaster, we’ve been able to get food in where there’s no opportunity for refrigeration. In Katrina we were able to get water in, in the bags for those that needed that immediately. Yeah, it’s had a much – far reaching impact, more than I ever anticipated.

Mundt: Are there additional ways that it could have an impact in the United States, in a culture where there is plenty of refrigeration available but we all still have products – or we have – we have products that we enjoy during the summer. Agriculture products we can’t enjoy in the winter.

Nelson: That’s an interesting question. There’s no question that we’re just at the tip of the iceberg of aseptic, my feeling, in the U.S. and probably around the world. You know, when you think of energy, we’re trying to reduce our use of energy. Think if we could reduce the use of refrigeration and what that could mean in our use of products. So, yeah, I think it has a more – a broader future here in the U.S. as well.

Mundt: What do you want to accomplish now that you’ve won this prize? It comes with a cash award but it also comes, I think, with certainly a kind of endorsement that you’ve had enough – a great career, that you don’t necessarily need but now you can use to, in fact, further your work if you’d like to.

Nelson: You know, that’s an interesting question. One thing I’ve always taught in the classroom – and I’ve been teaching for forty some years – is prepare yourself to take advantage of what might come along. And I sort of feel like this recipient of this prize really will bring something along, and I’m hoping I’ve prepared myself to take advantage of whatever that will be.


Tags: food food safety hunger interviews Iowa poverty World Food Prize