75 Years of Food Frontiers

September 9, 2003
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Food Engineering observes its 75th anniversary with a nostalgic review of major innovations in food manufacturing since 1928.

The familiar gabletop milk carton appeared in 1932 to eliminate bottle return for dairies.

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The familiar gabletop milk carton appeared in 1932 to eliminate bottle return for dairies.

Click here to enlarge image

This month Food Engineering “pops the cork”– perhaps the earliest container closure – to celebrate 75 years of publication by reviewing major technological advances covered by the magazine over the past three-quarters of a century.

After reviewing 75 years worth of FE – founded as Food Industries in 1928 – the historian is impressed not only with how much has changed but how little has changed.

Automation, for example, has advanced from thermostatic on/off temperature control to computerized process control integrated with management information systems and beyond into e-commerce via the Internet. Yet as early as 1962, in an editorial discussing the challenges of analytical process control, FE deplored the fact that “executives are too sales oriented to appreciate the opportunity for improved, consistent product quality.” Sound familiar?

Convenience foods have evolved from sliced bread to microwaveable entrees, yet canned entrees are still the convenient staples they were back in 1928. But the trend toward greater convenience continued. “Our industry will not have done its job until housewives buy most of their meals as packaged, ready-to-serve items,” said FDA Commissioner George P. Larrick in 1956. “In 10 years, no housewife will need to know how to cook.” The “ultimate,” FE editorialized in 1963, “is to take the homemaker from the kitchen and the cook from the restaurant.”

Industry consolidation didn’t begin with the multi-billion-dollar megamergers of the past 15 years. In 1953, FE reported that the number of food manufacturing firms had declined by 46 percent since 1928, and not all due to the Depression because the number of food plants declined by 51 percent during the 13-year period 1939-52. The number of plants fell 11.5 percent during the seven-year period 1947-54, FE added in ’57. In 1980, an FE headline asked: “Could 50 firms own the food industry in the year 2000?”

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Multi-plate freezers, developed in 1931, multiplied capacity of plate freezers developed during the '20s. Above: Operators load a four-station freezer with packages of lima beans.

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One trend which continuously accelerated over the past 75 years, however, was the strength of food retailers. In 1928, there were only 400 items in the typical grocery store. By 2002, according to Food Marketing Institute, the typical supermarket stocked 30,580 products. A plethora of new products was progressively squeezing supermarket shelf space. While computer technologies were boosting manufacturer productivity, they were also giving retailers a handle on their inventories. In a 1982 article entitled “Who will control the food industry?,” FE observed that “retailers may dominate food processors in the future.” It didn’t take long: Checkstand scanners, computer-monitored sales and inventories, and computer-allocated shelf space soon led to “slotting allowance” demands by retailers, compensatory “frontloading” by manufacturers, and “diverting” practices by retailers to take advantage of frontloading. All of these raised consumer prices. Starting in the mid-‘90s, the Efficient Consumer Response (ECR) movement aimed at squeezing $30 billion out of food distribution costs. Today, e-manufacturing – manufacturing to order rather than to inventory – promises to achieve true ECR.
 

Timelines trace developments

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Sliced bread swept the nation in 1930. This machine sliced and wrapped loaves automatically.

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Engineering is applied technology, usually existing technology, configured in varying ways to create or improve a specific manufacturing process or to solve a specific technical problem. During its 75-year history, spanning 900 editions, FE has reported on thousands of technological developments, innovative engineering designs and incremental improvements in food manufacturing technology and equipment. Along the way, continuous improvement eventually developed a process or product design which became an industry standard. Or, new technologies have been developed which may or may not be immediately applied but which show promise for eventual applications in food processing. Irradiation, which spanned 50 years in R&D and regulatory clearances before its application to pasteurizing red meats, is a major example.

The timelines shown throughout this article list some of the most important developments. These are listed according to the year they were first reported in Food Engineering. In some cases this was when they were developed or patented; in most cases when they were first commercially applied to food manufacturing. There can of course be many years between the two. Programmable controllers, for example, first appeared in 1969 but were not reported by FE until 1973. EVOH, a major barrier resin, was first manufactured in the U.S. in 1965 but not applied to food packaging until 1984.

So, Time Travelers, let’s pop the cork and journey back through – 75 Years of Food Frontiers.

1928 to 1953
War Spurs Applications of Depression Developments

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New drying equipment such as this rotary drum dryer was developed during World War II to meet government demand for dehydrated meat.

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The Great Depression, with up to 25 percent of family breadwinners unemployed. World War II, from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima. The Korean War, from Pusan to Panmunjom.

During its first 25 years, Food Engineering – launched in 1928 as Food Industries magazine – reported on advances in food manufacturing technologies as the U.S. endured three of the most painful periods in its history.

The basic food-preservation technologies practiced today – canning, pasteurization, refrigeration, freezing and drying – were well in place by the time FI started publication. Canning had evolved from Nicholas Appert’s appertization process of the early 19th century through A. K. Shriver’s retort in 1874 to a continuous retort system introduced in 1928. Frozen foods were developed early in the 1920s through the pioneering quick-freeze work of Clarence Birdseye, the founder of General Foods Co., and were gradually gaining consumer acceptance.

As shown on the adjacent timeline, major innovations continued throughout the 1930s. Sliced bread appeared, which many considered a fad but which set the standard for “the greatest thing since...” Direct steam injection was added to pasteurization and sterilization technologies. Vacuum-jar sealing systems were developed. The familiar gabletop milk carton appeared, eliminating bottle returns for dairies. Automated cardboard-carton setup machines revolutionized food distribution by replacing wooden boxes, saving shipping weight and eliminating box-building operations in food plants. Band ovens with throttling zone control appeared, replacing batch and rotary types. These ovens featured thermostatic on-off temperature controls, which were soon incorporated into other equipment such as kettles and retorts, starting the inexorable and continuing march toward complete plant automation. Instrumented tubular and plate sterilizers were applied to liquid acid food products. Major advances in mechanical refrigeration occurred after 1928 as compressors capable of generating ever-higher speeds and lower temperatures evolved.

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Digital computer at Sara Lee plant, started-up in 1964 at Deerfield, Ill., monitored about 300 process variables to ensure uniform baking. The system also issues up to 180,000 commands every three seconds in directing order-picking and crane operations in the plant's huge holding freezer.

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But during the Depression, only the largest manufacturers could afford to apply these innovations. It took World War II, with huge government contracts to feed immensely expanded armed forces as well as other nations, to spur applications of high-speed manufacturing, packaging and material handling equipment; lightweight paper and plastic packaging (to free metal-can materials for other uses); improved sanitation, quality control and plant design. “An enormous number of technological advances had been made that that were not generally applied until the late ‘30s and early ‘40s,” Food Industries observed. The need to feed the troops and ‘round-the-clock shifts in defense plants created the first real mass-feeding markets, stimulating new convenience foods (including C-rations) and institutional food packaging.

At war’s end price controls were lifted, most plants were equipped with high-speed machinery, labor was plentiful, the Marshall Plan obviated crop surpluses, and the nation enjoyed its first real economic boom since the 1920s. The food industry was now able to apply its wartime technologies to the consumer market. New convenience foods such as preformed portion-controlled frozen meats and TV dinners appeared, sparking the “heat-and-eat” trend. Television was changing consumer habits while creating a whole new dimension of food marketing. Aseptic canning technology, which showed promise of improving product quality and reducing energy costs by minimizing heat treatment, was developed in 1949.

The Cold War with the Soviet Union and its Communist satellites, which succeeded World War II, flared in 1950 into a hot war in Korea. Troops posted to Japan and Korea came home with a taste for Oriental foods, to which food manufacturers responded with frozen and canned Oriental meals. This sparked an ethnic foods trend that was only eclipsed by Italian foods in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, food engineering had become recognized as a profession, so Food Industries changed its name in April 1951, to Food Engineering.

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MeisterBrau Lite beer was developed as a regional product by the Peter Hand Brewing Co. of Chicago in 1967. Peter Hand later sold the brand to Miller Brewing Co., which took it national.

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1953 to 1978
Technology Breakthroughs Team with Automation Advances

The pace of developments in food technology slowed during WWII as the industry applied the innovations of the ‘30s, but accelerated dramatically during FE’s second trimester. The timeline at left merely scratches the surface. Three major examples: irradiation, freeze-drying and automation.

FE first reported on the food sterilization potential of ionizing radiation in 1953. During the late ‘50s the U.S. Army test-irradiated more than 100 food products, and in April ’63 FE hailed the Army’s gamma-irradiated bacon as “the first new basic food preservation process in 150 years.” But FDA had ruled in 1960 that irradiation is “a food additive,” complicating agency approvals of irradiated foods. Not surprisingly, food manufacturers discontinued research “for lack of commercial promise,” while the Army continued research in its new irradiation lab at Natick, MA. In April, 1966, FE reported that “both Washington and the industry are unhappy with adverse publicity about irradiated foods,” that “extensive research over several years has consistently demonstrated (their) safety” and that “it is now established without doubt that no radioactivity remains in the treated product. Irradiated bacon is just as harmless as any food sterilized by heat.” In Aug., ’67 FE criticized FDA’s approval requirements for irradiated foods as “illogically extreme,” and that after more than 15 years of R&D the agency is “holding the lid down on irradiation” after having cleared it for canned bacon, wheat and potatoes.

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Dole aseptic can filler at Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Assn. plant in 1963. Cans are steam-sterilized and filled in the sterile chamber, then closed with steam-sterilized lids in a steam atmosphere.

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Freeze-dry technology, first reported by FE 1953, was rapidly applied and continuously improved over the next 20 years. Commercialization aimed at developing continuous, high-throughput equipment to reduce operating time. In 1958 the Army developed freeze-dried field rations; by 1959 a commercial process was producing freeze-dried meals, and in 1960 a continuous process was developed. Freeze-dried instant coffee appeared in Italy in 1963 and the U.S. in ‘64. Later that year, cereal manufacturers introduced RTE cereals containing freeze-dried fruits. Freeze-dried fruit juices followed in 1970. In 1964, FE observed that “no other basic food process has such a complexity of quality-controlling factors as freeze drying,” and recommended that USDA devote more resources to R&D because Army funds were inadequate and focused on military applications.

Analog computers were first applied in the food industry to processes such as blanching and blending. PID controllers appeared in 1955, and an electronic batching system programmed by punch card was introduced in 1956. Next, electronic load cells integrated with batch control systems to continuously monitor tank or bin weight. Punch-card and tape programming were applied to other sequential control equipment such as retorts. By 1963, a solid-state analog computer controlled some process variables, and a digital blending system accepting analog I/O appeared. In 1964, Sara Lee started-up the nation’s first totally automated food plant at Deerfield, Ill., where batch formulas on magnetic tape directed digital computers controlling batching and mixing systems, and taped instructions directed robotic order-pick and crane systems. As early as June 1965, FE editorialized that the food industry “must integrate process control and electronic data processing.”

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Special retort designed for testing military retort-pouch meat entrees at the Swift & Co. pilot plant in 1972 held racks of flexible pouches. The digital programmer was preset to automate retort functions for each specific product.

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By the early ‘70s, digital process control was replacing analog control, but software still consisted of tape and punch cards. Plug-in electronic circuit cards were introduced in 1972, and in 1973 a solid-state programmable controller appeared. Programmable controllers, originally dubbed PCs, started incorporating the functionalities of minicomputers. In reporting on “the digital take-over in food manufacturing” in 1975, FE described digital technology as “an exciting breakthrough in…industrial control equipment which has already achieved important results in food manufacturing.” In 1978 the microprocessor appeared, setting the stage for the next breakthrough in automation.

New forms of packaging appeared as new plastic films were invented, then laminated together to form flexible and rigid materials which could be sealed, shrunk, formed and cut as needed. Many of these structures incorporated aluminum foil, Saran or Surlyn as an oxygen barrier.

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Tamper-evident breakaway-ring cap of high-density polyethylene, introduced in 1973, set a design standard for plastic milk bottle closures which continues to the present day.

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Incremental improvements in process and packaging machinery over the 25-year periodcontinuously improved speeds and efficiency. By the early ‘70s, for example, soft drink bottlers and brewers were filling at 2,000 bpm; forming machines were stamping-out 2,400 hamburger patties per hour; fruits and vegetables were color-sorted at 2,600 lbs. per hour; tray-packs were shrink-wrapped at 1,500 cpm; cans were filled and seamed at 1,200 cpm.

Backgrounding everything between 1965 and ’75, however, was the spectre of the Vietnam War with its endless costs and casualties while the government continued spending on “Great Society” programs. For manufacturers, “guns and butter” caused rising taxes (especially on gasoline), escalating costs, inflation and – by 1971 – wage/price controls, which further boosted inflation when subsequently lifted.

1978 to 2003
The Microelectronic Revolution

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The process control center at Adolph Coors' beer blending and packaging plant, started-up in 1987 at Elkton, Va., interfaced with PLCs to control all operations from receiving to filling. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

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“Not since the development of the transistor in 1948 has any product or technology offered such an exciting preview of things to come as the microprocessor,” a technology systems executive told FE in February 1979. Few technological breakthroughs have impacted so completely on manufacturing as the microprocessor: A small computer on a chip integrating CPU, memory, input/output and other tasks. Starting in the late ‘70s, suppliers progressively incorporated microprocessor control into process and packaging equipment, into lab and on-line instrumentation, and into process control systems. Programmable controllers soon integrated with personal computers for desktop and plant-floor process control, and evolved toward the multifunctional capabilities of the HMI/SCADA systems introduced in the late ‘90s. But it wasn’t until the early ‘90s, when vendors recognized that proprietary systems could not fully meet food manufacturer needs and formed open system alliances, that applications started to pay off. Milestone systems such as PMIS, POMS and other manufacturing execution systems (MES), achieved through vendor partnerships, created the missing link between plant floor process control and management information systems. Today, increasingly sophisticated software is integrating these systems with suppliers and retailers via the Internet to achieve e-commerce.

During the late ‘80s, FDA successively cleared irradiation to kill pathogens in spices, pork, fruits, vegetables and poultry, and irradiated fresh chicken gained limited market acceptance in 1994. But it took a pathogen called E. coli 0157:H7, several fatalities and massive ground beef recalls before FDA, USDA, consumers and meat processors alike all accepted irradiated ground beef. FSIS approved irradiation of red meats in 1999, and the first electronic pasteurization plant designed specifically for ground beef started-up immediately. Meanwhile, FSIS had published its “MegaReg” in 1996, mandating standard sanitary operating procedures (SSOPs) in all meat and poultry plants by 1997, and HACCP in all meat/poultry plants by 1999. In 2001, FDA mandated HACCP for juice plants as well.

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Aseptic products produced in 1983 by Real Fresh Co., a pioneer in aseptic processing and packaging, included UHT whole milk, low-fat milk, chocolate milk and a line of fruit juices in quart and 250ml sizes.

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Research into “non-thermal” pasteurization and sterilization processes accelerated during the ‘90s, and isostatic ultra-high-pressure (UHP) systems reached commercial applications with batch units for packaged guacamole in 1998 and packaged meats in 2001, and continuous systems for juice in 2000. UHP-pasteurization meets the 5-log pathogen-reduction standard mandated by FDA for juice. Additional non-thermal processes showing promise for pasteurization or sterilization of food and beverage products are pulsed electrical fields, pulsed electricity and dense-phase CO2 treatment.

Food biotechnology is as ancient as bread, beer and cheese, but the recombinant DNA “gene-splicing” technology revealed in 1980, initially for pharmaceutical applications, promised to improve enzymes, proteins and various food ingredients produced through fermentation. The first such product, a microbially derived rennin developed to replace scarce calf rennin for coagulating cheese, appeared in 1983. Since then, however, most advances in genetic engineering have been achieved through methods such as cell fusion, protoplast fusion, tissue culture, hybridization and protein engineering – i.e., rearranging amino acids on the protein molecule to change their properties. Using technologies such as these, molecular biologists have created improved enzymes, proteins, polysaccharides, vitamins, flavors, colors, yeasts and starter cultures. Genetically engineered food crops, such as the pest-resistant corn developed in 1990, minimize need for chemical herbicides and pesticides and can boost yields in adverse climatic conditions (especially in the Third World), but have raised unjustified fears of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Europe and among activists at home.

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Shelf-stable meat and poultry entrees packaged in retortable, microwaveable plastic trays and cups were introduced in 1986. Shown above: One of Hormel's Top Shelf entrees in a multi-layer tray incorporating polypropylene and Saran PVDC, with a lid of foil and several resin layers.

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After the FDA banned cyclamate in 1970 and saccharin in 1980, Americans were left without low-calorie sugar substitutes. Congress stepped in with successive moratoria on the saccharin ban; FDA cleared aspartame in 1981 and gradually approved it for applications ranging from soft drinks to bakery products; and FDA finally withdrew its saccharin ban in 1991. Acesulfame potassium was approved in 1988, sucralose in 1998. Petitions to approve alitame and to re-approve cyclamate are pending. Meanwhile, high-fructose corn syrup replaced sugar in a wide range of products, especially soft drinks.

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Avomex, Inc. introduced the first commercial high-pressure processed product, packaged guacamole, in 1998. Today, Avomex and sister company Juarez Foods operate 10 ultra-high-pressure systems to create batch-continuous processes pasteurizing guacamole and a new line of refrigerated Meals in Minutes at plants in Keller, Tex. and Sabinas, Mexico.

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Fat substitutes arrived with the development of the reduced-calorie fat sucrose polyesterin 1979, and its later clearance by FDA in 1996. During the late ‘90s, ingredient suppliers developed a host of fat replacers formulated from various combinations of gums, starches, proteins and polysaccharides. Obesity, however, continues to be the major nutritional problem in the U.S., leading food processors to reevaluate some of their products. Kraft Foods, for example, announced on July 1, 2003, a series of initiatives addressing obesity. Included: Capping portion sizes on single-servepackages, especially those sold in school vending machines.

Meanwhile, the costs of U.S. response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – tightened nationwide security, the creation of the Homeland Defense Dept., and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – are creating federal deficits which threaten economic progress in the first decade of the 21st century.

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