Biological Systems Engineering

Microwave Heating

Senator Murkowski Announces New Salmon Processing Breakthrough

Senator Lisa Murkowski announced a breakthrough in the processing of packaged salmon that may increase demand for salmon and help improve prices for Alaska's wild salmon stocks.

Murkowski, on the eve of the annual Com-Fish fishery trade show in Kodiak, announced that a four-year research effort involving the Department of Defense, Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., and several private sector companies including Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Inc., have cooperated in the development of a high-powered microwave sterilization process that can produce high-quality, shelf-stable products, and can do so at far less cost than traditional canning. The process could notably improve the marketing opportunities for salmon along with other seafood.

Fresh and Processed Salmon

"This is a proprietary process that has been kept largely under wraps until now," said Murkowski. "I am finally free to say what I believe - that this technology has the potential to revolutionize the salmon market within the next few years. The process is faster, better and cheaper than canning. With a little work, this technique can produce a skinless, boneless product that looks and tastes like a freshly broiled salmon fillet, needs no refrigeration, and can be served as either a hot or cold entrée or used in any recipe calling for cooked salmon. and that can be served hot or cold. The implications of this technology breakthrough are truly profound for Alaska's salmon industry and for the state's economy," said Senator Murkowski.

She was announcing a breakthrough in research being conducted by the Defense Department's Combat Feeding Directorate, based in Natick, Mass., Ocean Beauty Seafoods, headquartered in Seattle, scientists from Washington State University and food processing companies: Kraft Foods Inc., Hormel Foods, Truitt Brothers Inc., M&M Mars and the packaging and equipment companies: Rexam Containers, Graphic Packaging and Ferrite Component.

The unusual private-public cooperative effort began in 2000 under the federal government's Dual Use Science and Technology program. The military interest originally was in a process that would produce better quality egg and cheese dishes for soldiers' field rations, because such foods don't hold up well under traditional extended heat treatment. Once they began working with salmon, researchers discovered that fillet portions packaged in an airtight plastic tray and submerged in a water bath before being microwaved could be processed quickly and effectively. The food is processed at 265 degrees (F) for 10 minutes, compared to cooking in a pressurized retort at 250 degrees for 90 minutes. In addition, Murkowski said, the energy cost is considerably lower than for heating a retort, and the plastic packaging costs considerably less than cans.

"An experimental shipment made from frozen fillets has already gone to the military's evaluators and more - made from fresh fillets - will be shipped this summer. By next year, we hope there will be at least one full-scale commercial product line in operation here in Alaska. And once the initial stages are complete the technology will be made available to companies outside this consortium allowing for the full commercialization of this process in a highly competitive market," said Murkowski.

Military officials agree. "We're talking about a quantum leap in food quality," said Dr. Tom Yang, a Senior Food Technologist at the Combat Feeding Directorate, comparing it to conventional retort processing, which is currently the only process used for the military's Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) entrees and for larger pre-cooked meals for units in the field. "We can introduce more varieties of foods to warfighters that we can't do with retorting," he said. "Certain foods were out of the question until microwave sterilization."

"A challenge to us at Natick is to have a whole muscle product that looks and tastes like a freshly broiled fillet," said Dr. Patrick Dunne, Senior Technical Advisor at the Combat Feeding Directorate. "With retorting, it often ends up being tough and overcooked to make sure all the bacteria have been killed. We also see this technology as doing a really great job with other products, such as macaroni and cheese, scrambled eggs and mashed potatoes," he said.

During a recent visit to the microwave processing pilot plant at Washington State University, Gerald Darsch, Director of the Combat Feeding Program sampled some microwave processed Alaskan salmon and said, "This technology will truly 'tip the scales' of processed salmon quality."

First developed in the 1990s at WSU, this effort was led by Dr. Juming Tang, a professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering. Food technologists at Natick helped to solve problems of uneven heating and monitoring heat distribution, and provided technical advice on determining quality and other sensory attributes. A small microwave system, designed and located at WSU, has demonstrated the capability to process a variety of foods. It will now be scaled up to create a pre-production plant for larger-scale operations.

Microwave processed Alaskan wild salmon fillets were received at Natick to start a series of preliminary quality and shelf-life tests. During the upcoming summer salmon season, Ocean Beauty Seafoods will utilize fresh, fresh-frozen, and microwave processed Alaska wild salmon to complete the study. Recently, the State of Alaska also stepped into the picture - with help from the State, the University of Alaska Fishery Industrial Research Center (FITC) in Kodiak will provide technical expertise to get a commercial line in operation at the Ocean Beauty facility in Kodiak. When not in use for salmon, the processing line will be made available for FITC researchers studying other possible microwave products.

To date, most of the samples tested have been simple portions with no additional treatment. However, it should also be possible to package and process more sophisticated dishes, such as portions cooked in lemon and butter sauce or other flavors, and to add grill marks to give the appearance of broiled fish. That should improve the products' appeal to consumers even more, said Murkowski.

The military, pending FDA approval and selection of a suitable packaging system for its use, plans to begin using microwave processed foods in addition to retort-processed rations. That market may support approximately 1.5 million salmon meals per year. But that's only the beginning, according to Senator Murkowski.

"It may take a few years to get this up and running as a consumer product," said Murkowski, "but I believe this will be the breakthrough production technique for large-volume fisheries such as pink salmon, because it can be done for less money and in almost one-tenth of the time and still produces an extremely attractive end product. The implications are truly profound for the Alaska seafood industry," said Murkowski.

Sen. Murkowski Announces New Salmon Processing Breakthrough. March 19, 2004.

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