Fabulous Food Plants

Fabulous Food Plant: October 2008

October 1, 2008
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Market conditions pushed Fresherized Foods to get back to basics this year, but the innovator in high pressure processing expects to emerge even stronger in global guacamole production.



Skyrocketing raw-material costs, a slumping economy, difficulties of diversification: many food companies can relate to the issues confronting Fresherized Foods this year.

Incorporated as Avomex Inc. a dozen years ago and now doing business as Fresherized Foods, the Fort Worth, TX-based firm started 2008 with five plants. The count will be four at year end, including one new facility.

Reshuffling the deck could be a sign of distress, though not in this case. Fresherized had a couple of trump cards to play, after all: dominance in the processed avocado and guacamole dip market, and mastery of the technology that has transformed the fruit from a regional curiosity into one of the fastest growing produce categories in the United States.

Company founder and Texas restaurateur Don Bowden pioneered food applications of high pressure processing (HPP). Japanese processors applied the technology in the 1980s, but Bowden’s involvement created a market for the equipment fabricators who build intensifier pumps and high-pressure vessels. His original plant also served as the commercial proving ground and the driver for necessary changes to make HPP practical for food.

In the late ‘90s, samples of HPP-processed guacamole were sent to executives at a major grocery chain on a Super Bowl weekend. On Monday, Bowden received an order. “That doesn’t happen,” he dryly notes. Markets like San Antonio, where natives turned up their noses at processed guacamole, saw 10-fold sales spikes. Northeasterners who never had experienced the dip before became loyal customers.

With HPP, a product, typically packaged, is placed in a chamber that is filled with water at pressures of 87,000 psi or greater, held for approximately three minutes, then depressurized and removed. Evenly applied pressure does not alter the food, but the cell membranes of any microbes and viruses are ruptured. Food is pasteurized without heat. The flavor, texture and nutritional value of the food are intact, shelf life is extended, and food safety is enhanced.

HPP’s effectiveness is attracting many new users, particularly among ready-to-eat meat suppliers. This summer’s Canadian listeriosis outbreak that killed 13 is driving more RTE companies to consider HPP. As the year began, there were 114 HPP presses in use at food plants worldwide, estimates Carole Tonello, application & process development manager at NC Hyperbaric, including 64 in North America.

There weren’t any in 1996 when Bowden took delivery on his first unit and installed it in Sabinas, Mexico, 70 miles from the US border. Maximum batch size was 50 liters. Today, chambers capable of processing up to 420-L and throughputting 2.5 tons an hour are available. Prices for 300-L machines are comparable to Bowden’s first. His firm operates nine HPP presses at two plants in Sabinas, two in a year-old facility in Peru, and two more in a plant coming on line in Chile.  There also is “a museum in Mexico” consisting of retired presses, he jokes.

The arrows in their backs often distinguish pioneers, and if every quiver were left in place, Bowden would resemble a porcupine. But over the years successes have far outnumbered setbacks. Not only has the technology thrived, so has his manufacturing operation.

Steve Parnell (left), president, discusses a new guacamole package with company founder Don Bowden. Two-ounce servings as well as pouches with a variety of formulations have helped the firm become the dominant retail brand. Source: Avomex Inc.

Faltering baby steps

Guacamole was primarily a regional dish that did not travel well when Bowden began exploring ways to improve the menu at his chain of Mexican restaurants. Avocados were available from California, but the Mexican state of Michoacan was and remains the source of most of the world’s supply. Unfortunately, fears of pest infestation led to a 1914 ban on importing whole Mexican avocados into the US. Shipment of pulp-only satisfied agricultural rules but resulted in rapid oxidation. By the time it reached his restaurants, Bowden had a nasty base for his guacamole.

After trying a number of solutions, Bowdon purchased the US’s first commercial HPP from Sweden’s ABB (see story below.) “It ran 20 cycles and broke down,” he remembers. “It took two months to get a replacement part. We ran 20 more cycles, and it broke down again.”

Stubbornness and vision sustained Fresherized’s HPP commitment in the early days. The acquisition of ABB’s vessel-fabrication technology by high-pressure specialist Flow International created a domestic engineering design partner, Avure Technologies Inc. Blown seals in the pumps and piping that delivered pressurized water to the vessel were a chronic problem in the early days, but reformulations of the materials of construction have extended mean time to failure significantly, points out Glenn Hewson, vice president-global marketing for Kent, WA-based Avure. Sanitary considerations were factored into equipment previously used for metal densification and other industrial processes. A simple pump-and-plunger system gave way to twin banks of four variable-displacement pumps powered by 75 HP motors to ramp up to 6,000 bars in little more than a minute. Including hold time, a six-minute batch cycle is typical.

The entry of NC Hyperbaric into the North American market four years ago brought a shift from vertical presses to a horizontal configuration. Hyperbaric’s first installation, predictably, was at Fresherized. The Spanish machine builder also engineered independent intensifiers, each with its own hydraulic pump, to allow the system to keep cycling when seal failure necessitates nonscheduled maintenance, according to Jaime Nicolas-Correa, a principal in NC Hyperbaric.

Over the years, seal and pump failures have become predictable, according to Fernando Portales, Fresherized maintenance manager. “Our predictions have been within 20 percent, which is good for new technology,” says Portales. Seals typically last 5,000-6,000 cycles, or about a month’s operation.

“The reliability of the equipment today is excellent, and the presses’ size and pricing have improved,” adds Steve Parnell, Fresherized’s president. “Greater efficiency, lower cost per pound and higher throughput always are desirable, and commercially proven equipment is a requirement.” While many engineering firms have approached Fresherized over the years, the firm relies exclusively on Avure and NC Hyperbaric for its presses.

Early HPP adopters were on their own when it came to integrating presses into a production line. Costly systems for material handling were a particular roadblock. Rick Marshall, who headed business development at Flow when it became involved in HPP in 1997, tackled the issue in 2003 when he founded Gridpath Solutions Inc., an HPP systems integrator. “Users were being asked to fend for themselves in terms of validation and peripheral equipment,” says Marshall. “They were literally drying packages with rags until we built dryer systems.” Key contributions of the Stoney Creek, ON, integrator were the automatic loading and unloading systems and verification software with redundant validation of time and pressure variables.

Pouches filled with chicken are loaded into a 350-liter chamber for processing at Avomex’s Saginaw, TX, plant. The facility became a full-time tolling operation in summer after opening originally as a USDA inspected meat plant. Source: Avomex Inc.

Processing transparency

With the exception of direct competitors, Fresherized Foods has opened its doors to food manufacturers who want a close-up look at HPP technology. “The most frequent question we get is, is it as good as we say it is,” Portales relates. “It’s better.” Still, suspicion of the process lingers. “They want to see bubbles coming up, and that’s not the case,” Portales says.

“It’s a very transparent process,” agrees Marcia Walker, vice president-food technology & microbiology. “Food looks the same after pasteurization as it looked before.” Proteins are unaffected, and some enzymatic activity continues afterwards. To achieve sterility, 100,000 psi-plus pressure and heat would have to be applied to destroy spores. The product package is unaffected, though Walker worked with experts at the University of California-Davis to resolve delamination of EVOH film issues.

Before turning to HPP, the company vacuum packed and froze the product, realizing eight days’ shelf life. With HPP, they get 42 days. “We’ve tested it after 60, and it was fine,” she reports.

Walker headed development of Fresherized’s newest facility in Sabinas, an organically certified plant producing guacamole/avocados and salsa under the new Wholly Salsa brand. The name plays off the Wholly Guacamole name that launched a year ago after on-line balloting at the company’s website. Within months, brand awareness topped 20 percent. “It’s on fire,” says Parnell.

Avocado pulp pouched and placed in netting is lowered into a press at Avomex’s Sabinas, Mexico, facility. The netting maximizes the amount of fruit that can be batched. Source: Avomex Inc.

A food scientist, Walker became involved in HPP R&D in the early 1990s, soon after the army took notice of the technology. Officials at the US Department of Defense wanted to deliver shelf stable, flavorful field rations with high nutritional value to the troops. Uncle Sam opened his checkbook and channeled millions for HPP and other promising technologies through the Dual Use Science and Technology program. Oregon State University researcher Dan Farkas received funding to develop intensifiers for HPP, and Walker joined him at OSU for the next decade, helping to adapt the technology for food before joining Fresherized in 2003.

Rather than treat developments such as HAACP oriented systems and netting that maximizes the amount of pouched product in a batch as proprietary, Fresherized has put them in the public domain to help advance the technology. In some cases, the refinements have proven more beneficial to other food companies. A semi-continuous process Fresherized created for juices is now used by other companies to make smoothies and juices, but Fresherized mothballed its Sabinas juice facility and eight presses in June. Instead of water, the juice became the hydrostatic fluid, filling the entire cavity. At the end of the cycle, the juice was pumped to a clean-room filler.

“It’s great if you’re going to make the same variety day after day,” explains Parnell “For heat sensitive flavors like strawberry and blueberry, the results are phenomenal. But we were asked to make 20-30 different juices and smoothies. And producing multiple SKUs is an inefficient way to use that equipment.” Effective sanitation between changeovers was an issue.

Refrigerated meals sold through retail showed promise when they were launched a few years ago. Early results encouraged Fresherized to build a USDA-inspected facility in a former ice-cream novelty plant in Saginaw, TX, two years ago. But development of a retail brand proved difficult, and in June, the plug was pulled. The plant’s two presses have been shipped to the new South American facilities. Saginaw will serve as the firm’s new headquarters and the distribution center for fast-growing US foodservice and retail sales of guacamole and processed avocado.

“We thought we were going to diversify across product lines,” Parnell says. “Instead, we have diversified the source of our avocados and reallocated our juice and meat resources back to our core competency. We intend to give our customers consistent, year-round availability and pricing.”

The end of US trade barriers and a poor crop last year resulted in avocado price increases of 50%-100%. Moving a 300-liter Hyperbaric press to Lima, Peru, tempered some supply issues. A new Quillota, Chile, operation, 75 miles north of Santiago in an area rich in avocado plantations, will have an even bigger impact. A 350-L Avure unit which had performed tolling service in Saginaw until recently will join a 300-L Hyperbaric press. “Chile is going to be the number two source globally for avocados,” predicts Parnell.

Most of the army-funded DUST projects remain mired in research labs. The program’s singular success is HPP, with lobster processing on Prince Edwards Island joining a lengthening list of commercial products benefiting from HPP’s food safety and shelf-life benefits.

As people come to appreciate its advantages and food companies breathe easier because of the safety assurance it provides, users of HPP may want to take a scoop of guacamole and offer a “gracias” to the Texas restaurateur who nurtured HPP into a commercial tool. 


For more information:
Glenn Hewson, Avure Technologies Inc., 253-981-6239, glenn.hewson@avure.com
Rick Marshall, Gridpath Solutions Inc., 905-643-0955, rmarshall@gridpathinc.com
Jaime Nicolas-Correa, NC Hyperbaric, 917-361-4794, jaime.nc@nchyperbaric.es

Entrepreneur rolls a natural on HPP

A gambler may know when to hold and when to fold, but a maverick knows how to invent a new game. Don Bowden’s willingness to bet heavily on a new technology turned into a very shrewd and profitable decision

The first demonstration of high-pressure processing (HPP) for food processing occurred in the mid-‘90s in Columbus, OH, at Autoclave Engineering. In the audience were representatives of the world’s largest food companies and the owner of a small chain of Mexican restaurants in Texas. Only the restaurateur placed a machine order that day; the others kicked the tires and left.

Bowden had tried freezing guacamole, mild heat treatment and packing it in oil for shipment from Mexico, without getting the results he wanted. “The (HPP) technology made our product so superior to anything else that we didn’t have to put any citric acid or ascorbic acid in to preserve it,” he recalls. “I don’t know of another product that changed so much because of the processing technology used.”

For the next several years, Bowden was a steady-and the only-customer for HPP units, which first were fabricated by ABB in Sweden and, after Flow International acquired the operation, by Avure Technologies in Kent, WA. “I bought about everything there was to buy,” he remembers, for two reasons: if his supplier didn’t receive orders, it would exit the business and Bowden’s fledgling food company would be left without replacement parts. And the one-year lead time to get a machine meant he could be the de facto HPP dealer for North America, as other food processors followed in his footsteps. That part of the plan never reached fruition, however: each time a new machine arrived, product demand dictated that Bowden keep the unit.

After four years, sales had reached $10 million. Since 2000, sales have topped $100 million. “Luck is a big factor in all this,” admits Bowden, but he shortened the odds with shrewd business sense: all but one of the restaurants that generated the cash to capitalize Avomex’s early years were built “on cheap ground,” he says, in defiance of retailing’s location, location maxim. All now occupy prime real estate.

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