Quality and uniqueness are the two key attributes of the successful niche marketer. Find a seam in the market, address it with a consumer-appealing product, cultivate a loyal following, and pretty soon you have a rock-solid business. Ben and Jerry, Leonard Marsh (Snapple), Vernon Rudolph (Krispy Kreme), Ray Kroch, even the Colonel, all started with this formula. Hard work, vision, and innovation in both marketing and technology won them tremendous success. Often, the early adoption of new technology can provide a critical edge. Niche marketers usually can move more quickly and take greater risks than the big boys.
One technology innovation on the ascendancy is the use of ultraviolet light for pasteurization of juices and other fluid products. In the pilot plant at Illinois Institute of Technology’s National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Summit-Argo, Ill., just outside Chicago, several companies are testing UV pasteurization of products ranging from apple juice to liquid marinades for meat processing. Consequently, the plant houses a number of unique test systems.
“This technology is really for small and medium-sized producers at present, "stated research assistant professor Tatiana Koutchma. “Here at the center they come to validate their installation and calibrate dosage delivery.” The center helps these smaller companies evaluate the effectiveness and commercial potential of UV pasteurization. It also works with equipment manufacturers to test new UV technologies in process situations.
Since approval by the Food and Drug Administration just one year ago, UV processing has become an essential ingredient in the success of the Naked Foods line of fresh refrigerated juices marketed by California Day-Fresh Foods, Inc., Glendora, Calif. (see Food Technology, September 1999, p. 144). The company’s proprietary UV technology is patented under the name Light Process. This early adopter sees UV technology as a key competitive advantage that provides a cost-effective alternative to heat pasteurization and preservatives. UV processing can be accomplished at an ambient temperature that minimizes taste degradation. The finished product simply tastes more like fresh, with minimal risk from pathogens.
This success has led to a search for expanded applications, such as tea. “We’re processing nearly 60,000 gallons of refrigerated tea a week and growing at 18% a year,” stated Ronnie Carlton, president of Milo’s Restaurant Services, Inc., Birmingham, Ala. “I need a way to increase my shelf life, and UV pasteurization is something we’re looking at very closely.” His company owns a chain of Milo’s Hamburgers restaurants, and its fresh-brewed tea is a local favorite, outselling soft drinks ten to one. In 1989, Carlton decided to bottle the tea for distribution through supermarkets and convenience stores, and today Milo’s Famous Tea, both sweetened and unsweetened, is sold in gallon plastic jugs alongside milk in the dairy case. Refrigerated pint containers, also plastic, are available for single-serve use.
“Tea is a very personal thing, especially in the South,” he explained. “In fact, sweet tea is called the house wine of the South. Ours is a premium product and it’s not easy to make, so we don’t have any competition. But to expand distribution, I need better shelf life.” That led him to NCFST, where tests are ongoing.
Because UV light can only affect what the light beam hits, first-generation systems are relatively slow and applicable to low-opacity fluids. This may change with second-generation systems. One of the companies addressing this is Triton Thalassic Technologies, Inc., Ridgefield, Conn. “We started with UV technologies in the areas of blood treatment and metal-working fluids,” stated John Coogan, vice president and chief technology officer. “With food, we’re in the very early trial stage, but we’ve generated interest in segments other than juice.”
The process developed by Triton uses an excimer technology that generates a monochromatic UV beam without the use of mercury lamps. “We can pick and choose where that output is to maximize the beneficial aspects of the light,” Coogan explained. Meat processing brines and marinades represent a key target area for future applications. “By the middle of next year, we expect a growing market in the food industry. Our current installations in metalworking are large, so scaling down gives us an advantage. An important step is working with the regulatory agencies as early as possible, but I don’t anticipate any issues,” he concluded.
Other major companies working hard to expand the processing capabilities of UV light include Aquionics, Erlanger, Ky., and Safe Foods Corp., North Little Rock, Ark. In each case, the aim is to build higher-capacity units with the ability to effectively pasteurize an expanded range of liquid products and to integrate UV pasteurization with UV sterilization of packaging materials and other processing equipment.
One indication of growing interest in this technology is reflected in a recent visit to NCFST by engineers from Tropicana Products—definitely not a niche player. A company representative said, “We’re always looking at new technology.” But for now, look for the niche players to push the envelope.
by PIERCE HOLLINGSWORTH
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.