Technology, not produce, is the core business of New Zealand company

Auckland, New Zealand-based Fresh Appeal has found its core business is the technology – not the produce – that goes into making fresh-cut products. Fresh Appeal licenses its technology for the fresh-cut processing of fruits and vegetables in New Zealand, Australia and Europe, but the company also makes money from royalties based on throughput of its machines and by providing turnkey solutions to fresh-cut processors.

Fresh Appeal was formed in 2002 as a joint venture between The Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand (HortResearch), owned by New Zealand’s government, and a group of investors from Logistic Solutions, which was doing research into ultraviolet (UV) antimicrobial technology.

“The technology came about after I was approached to see if I could disinfect apples without the use of chemicals,” said Lionel Evans, director of research and development for Fresh Appeal. Evans began the research in 1996 and filed the first patent papers in 1998.

The result of that research was The Turbulator, a wash step in the fresh-cut process that uses UV light to penetrate and disinfect the produce.

“Basically, the technology consists of a spinning vortex of apples going down an ingredient bath,” Evans said.

The spinning aspect is important to the process because the UV covers the entire piece – more than the entire piece, actually. Evans said 111 percent of the fresh-cut apple slice is covered, so some areas are covered twice. That’s an important aspect of the food safety system, because if a section is missed it can leave contaminants on the produce.

One of the products to come from Fresh Appeal’s research is fresh-cut apple slices packaged by Fresh Edge and branded under the Fruitees label. They’re sold and distributed across New Zealand and are the official snack of the region’s netball league (a sport similar to women’s basketball in the United States). The apple variety changes depending on the availability of each season, but Rasmussen said Pink Lady and the Jazz apple – developed by HortResearch – are popular in New Zealand.

Local tastes prevail, though. As Fresh Appeal works with partners in Europe, Rasmussen said the varieties change. In Ireland, the Brambley apple is the most popular, but it would probably be unacceptable to customers elsewhere. As the company looks for U.S. partners, it’s had to evaluate the country’s most popular apples, such as Red Delicious.

The technology has been applied to more than just fresh-cut apple slices. It’s being used on fresh-cut mandarins, oranges, peas, carrots, cabbage, celery, potatoes and onions.

The UV rays are effective against E. coli, listeria and salmonella, plus it’s entirely natural, said Flemming Rasmussen, CEO of Fresh Appeal. The UV light penetrates the fresh-cut produce to remove all the known foodborne and waterborne contaminants at a 99.9 percent level, making it as effective as the disinfecting washes used in the United States and Europe.

“Under properly applied conditions, it’s as good as those when they’re at their best,” Rasmussen said.

UV light has other advantages as well. It doesn’t change the taste or physical odor of the produce, and the shelf life is extended. For fresh-cut apples, browning also is prevented, making the product more desirable to consumers.

“The product doesn’t degenerate in the same way and keeps its natural attributes,” Rasmussen said.

The mineral wash that moves the produce through the system is sterilized water and the antimicrobial agent is non-contact, so nothing is added to the fresh-cut produce.

“We have no smell whatsoever,” Evans said. “And we have no residual whatsoever.”

The treatment extends the shelf life beyond what the New Zealand and European industries call for. For the fresh-cut apple products, the shelf life is about 21 days from packaging, and even longer for other produce. Sliced or diced onions have a shelf life of 30-plus days and extension of five to seven days, Rasmussen said.

“There’s still shelf life left when consumers are pulling them off of the shelf and taking them home,” Rasmussen said.

But shelf life is a process, he said, that depends upon the cold chain. Rasmussen said the Fresh Edge apple slices are processed at 32° F to 33° F and transported and stored between 32° F and 39° F. The cold chain is a given in New Zealand, Australia and Europe, he said. With the long shelf life and efficient cold chain, produce can be processed in one place and transported to another region using refrigerated trucks.

The UV treatments had an unforeseen benefit on the fresh-cut fruit. It made the apples more resilient, so the cold chain could be broken for eight to nine hours without seeing an “explosion in the microbial count,” Rasmussen said.

That’s an important aspect to food safety because the cold chain is typically broken when consumers purchase the product. The manufacturer doesn’t know what people do with the product once they take it home, but with that window built in there is less chance that the number of microbes will increase.

Some microbes are unavoidable. As the fresh-cut produce goes through the machinery there are fewer than 10 microbes on the slice, but as many as a 2,000 by the time it is put into a bag, Evans said.

Food safety is important to consumers in every country, Rasmussen said, and UV light can effectively manage microbes on fresh-cut produce and still provide customers with the highest quality product – the most important aspect in a consumer-driven market.

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