Thursday 21 September 2017

Irish researchers bite back in battle against food waste

Darragh McCullough
Darragh McCullough
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The statistics on the amount of food that we waste are shocking.

While one billion people go to bed hungry every night, western societies bin up to two-thirds of the food that they produce.

During Christmas, the figures tend to go off the scale as we chuck out half-eaten turkeys and mounds of left-over Brussels sprouts.

But the food that gets dumped in the kitchen is only half of the story.

Much of the waste happens before it ever leaves the supermarket shelf.

Tesco published figures last month that showed that 68pc of its bagged salad is discarded.

One of the main reasons that we chuck out so much food is because it has passed its best-before date or, in the case of the retailer, its display-until date.

So new technology being developed in a joint initiative between Dublin universities DIT and DCU and an Irish-owned company called Iris could be a real game-changer in our battle against waste.

Non-thermal plasma is the techie tag for a technology that enables gas to kill off microbes at room temperature.

Back in our school days, we were told that there were three physical states – solid, liquid and gas.

But scientists are now investigating a 'fourth state', where gas becomes a plasma when a large electric charge is passed through it.

By passing 100,000 volts through gas, Dr PJ Cullen and his team of researchers at DIT are working on the anti-microbial effects of plasma to prolong the shelf life of all kinds of traditionally vulnerable foods.

"Because it happens at room temperature and doesn't damage the delicate tissues of foods like lettuce, we can use it pretty much on any food we want," explains Dr Cullen.

How long the food is subjected to the plasma treatment depends on how long the food processor wants to preserve the food for. But because most people don't want to eat a strawberry that was picked six months previously, Dr Cullen envisages the vast majority of food being subjected to less than a minute of plasma.

"We have succeeded in multiplying the shelf-life of all kinds of foods several fold, and that's all that the food processors really want," said Dr Cullen.

The Wexford man is working in tandem with Iris, a Barcelona-based company owned by an Irish couple, Colm Bigby and Oonagh McNerney. Set up in 2007, they already employ 44 people between their Irish and Spanish offices to develop novel technologies for the food manufacturing sector.

"We get up to 75pc funding from the EU to develop technologies that have already been proven in the lab but need further work to scale them up for use in industry," said Ms McNerney.

IDEAS

They have projects ranging in size from €50,000 to €3m looking at everything from plasma gas packs for food to utilising ultra-sound to help food survive the freezing process better.

Ideas such as the use of plasma to prolong food shelf life have already garnered a lot of attention from large international interests.

"I was over meeting the Chinese manager of a massive farm on Hainan Island who is really keen to get his hands on this type of technology," said Dr Cullen.

The farm has over 250,000 staff and produces highly perishable exotic jack-fruit and wax-apples that must be air freighted to the Chinese mainland at enormous expense.

"Basically they want something that can extend the shelf-life of their fruit so it can be shipped instead of flown out of the island," explained Dr Cullen.

At an estimated €30,000 each, the machines may not sound cheap, but could provide a viable alternative to oft-loathed chlorine dips fruit and salad producers rely on.

As a country that relies on exports to shift 90pc of the food we produce, technology like this can only be a boon.

Who knows, maybe Ireland can even aspire to becoming a Silicon Valley for food innovation and technology.

Irish Independent

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