TOKYO -- Anyone who has ever fished veggies or meat out of the fridge, only to find hopes for a homemade meal wilt like rotten lettuce understands the challenge of keeping food fresh. But thanks to new packaging, rearing and shipping technologies, people may be making fewer last-minute calls for pizza.
Take vegetables. Even if you buy your greens direct from the farm, they begin to wither in the refrigerator once you get them home. Plastic wrap helps ward off the decay, but it can also create condensation. The moisture is nice if you're a mold looking for a place to grow, not so good if you're a human who prefers a crisp, tasty leaf. Retailers face the same problem.
Help may be at hand for everyone from farmers, to shippers to chefs, thanks to a new plastic wrap developed by Sumitomo Bakelite that seals in freshness and prevents condensation from forming inside the package.
Other plastic wraps do a good job keeping out air, which is important, but only half the job when it comes to keeping food edible. The other half is preventing condensation. Sumitomo Bakelite's wrap does this by widening the gaps between the molecules of plastic. The wrap acts like a sponge, sucking up moisture inside the package and expelling it. This keeps the humidity inside the package at the optimal level.
Japanese produce is very popular in Hong Kong, but getting it there by ship takes a week. Some degree of spoilage and other damage is unavoidable. This summer, one farmer used Sumitomo Bakelite's new wrap to package yams for the trip. Normally around 30% of the yams are lost to spoilage, but with the new wrap the loss was cut to around 10%. The wrap can be used for shiitake mushrooms, taro, ginger and okra as well.
Sumitomo Bakelite's next goal is to develop different wraps that create varying humidity levels inside the package for different kinds of vegetables. Such packaging would be ideal for both unprocessed and semiprocessed foods, said Katsuhisa Shiramoto of the company's P-Plus development department.
Spoilage imposes big social costs. If better plastic wraps can reduce the amount of waste in distribution, it could lower food prices for consumers and allow for better use of resources.
The growing popularity of Japanese cuisine around the world has created more demand for fresh fish. The business opportunity is not lost on University of Nagasaki professor Kenji Kugino, who, with his colleagues, has launched a startup called Marine Biotechnology.
The company is looking for a way to ship live fish over long distances, essentially by putting them to sleep.
Fish that are kept in tanks can get sick and die as the water they live in gets dirtier and dirtier. Marine Biotechnology tackles this problem by saturating the water with carbon dioxide. This puts the fish in a dormant state, slowing their metabolism and greatly reducing the amount of waste they produce.
Marine Biotechnology's tanks contain over 100 times more carbon dioxide than normal. To keep the fish from suffocating, the tanks are supplied with ultrafine bubbles of oxygen. The fish just lie on their sides, unmoving. But once they are delivered to a regular holding tank at a restaurant or market, they immediately revive and begin swimming around.
In one test, 20 grunt fish were transported in this dormant state from Nagasaki Prefecture to Tokyo on a 17-hour trip. The fish not only survived, but seemed completely unaffected. The procedure is simple and does not use chemicals, so food safety is not an issue.
Marine Biotechnology will team up with IDEC, which makes the oxygen aerators, to produce the special tanks commercially. The startup is also working on a partnership with Japan Airlines, eyeing the air cargo market.
But it takes more than clean water to keep fish alive. Many also succumb to wounds they receive when they are caught. The Hiroshima Prefecture Fisheries and Marine Technology Center hopes to ease this problem by helping injured fish heal faster.
Fish recover more readily when their blood flow is restricted, and an easy way to do that is to raise them in diluted seawater. The center is investigating the optimal salt concentration for different species of fish, including seabream, flounder, and rockfish. If markets and wholesalers can maintain ideal conditions in their tanks, they can adjust deliveries to smooth out supplies and price fluctuations that arise from the vagaries of the catch.
Aged beef on the fly
New refrigerated transport technologies also promise to keep produce and meat fresher, longer.
Nippon Express and a company called Mars are testing a device that creates ozone inside a delivery truck's cargo compartment using high voltage. The ozone retards the growth of microbes that cause vegetables and meat to rot.
Under optimal conditions, it might even be possible to use the time spent in transport to age beef, adding value even as the meat is being delivered.