Innovative ozone technology developed and patented by Scottish company Anacail has the potential to be a game-changer for retailers in the UK and worldwide thanks to its ability to safely and quickly ‘decontaminate’ fresh fruits and vegetables in sealed packs. A potent germicide, the ozone actively reduces bacteria, mould, yeasts and viruses on produce without the need for any chemicals or additives, thereby extending shelf-life and improving food safety. PBUK caught up with Anacail, which is exhibiting at The London Produce Show and Conference, as it brings the product to market following years of research and development.
According to Business Development Manager Ian Dewar, Anacail’s in-pack ozone generating technology could revolutionise shelf-life and food safety for growers, suppliers, packers and retailers worldwide, thanks to its multiple benefits which ultimately would lead to retailers selling more produce, while cutting in-store waste.
“This technology increases shelf-life, so retailers are going to be able to keep products on the shelf for longer,” explains Dewar. “Also, because we’re killing spoilage organisms, like yeast, moulds, bacteria and even human pathogens, we can improve the quality of the product, plus the food will be safer to eat.
“Importantly, this technology will reduce food waste too, so retailers will see lower levels of waste. That, combined with improved quality, will mean happier customers and fewer complaints. It doesn’t affect the taste or smell of the product either.”
Berries, grapes and tomatoes
Although the technology works well for most fresh fruits and vegetables – except leafy vegetables and fresh-cut fruit – Anacail is concentrating on berries, table grapes and tomatoes since these fruits reap the best results. And while it comes at a cost, Dewar says the benefits “absolutely outweigh” the investment.
“For berries, we can talk about a 2-3 day shelf-life extension, for tomatoes it’s around a 4-8 day extension, and for grapes we’re looking at up to 16 days of additional life,” he points out.
“The waste savings are significant too,” Dewar adds. “You could be talking about reducing your waste by up to half potentially.”
Being a scientific company first and foremost – Anacail is a venture capital-backed spin-out of the Astrophysics Department at the University of Glasgow – Dewar maintains that Anacail doesn’t make claims without backing them up.
“The science comes first for us,” he states. “We have a lot of internal data from real experiments that has been accredited by independent labs to show that we get a shelf-life extension and a reduction in waste.”
Evidence of Anacail’s trial data for berries, grapes and tomatoes can be downloaded from the company’s website here.
From a sales and profits perspective, Dewar says the impact for retailers and their suppliers is also significant.
“From the work and trials that we’ve done, we’ve definitely seen an increase in sales,” he comments. “The important thing to remember is that because you have improved the quality of the product through its existing shelf-life, a retailer can sell a product that looks better and lasts longer for a longer period of time.
“If waste is reduced, that’s a profit margin. And if you can sell more packs for longer, in effect you are increasing your sales, so your profits will increase through selling more, but also reducing your waste.
“We believe that our ozone technology will have a global reach within the next five years because people will see the benefits of improved product quality, safety and reduced waste.”
Already, the firm has partnered with some of the UK’s leading grocery retailers, as well as major fruit growers in the UK and Europe who supply UK supermarkets, although non-disclosure agreements mean Dewar cannot reveal their names. Anacail’s technology is garnering global interest too.
“We have had inquiries from all over the world,” notes Dewar, who says most people are either interested in extending shelf-life or reducing food waste.
“Right now, we’re working in Spain, we hope to work very soon in the Netherlands, and we’ve had inquiries from Japan, Mexico and the USA, so pretty much anywhere that produces berries, tomatoes or grapes.”
Anacail results for mould and yeast growth on control (top) versus ozone treated (bottom)
All things considered, Anacail, which means ‘shield’, ’preserve’ or ‘protect’ in Gaelic, believes its ozone technology has the potential to revolutionise the fresh produce industry globally.
“I don’t think there is another shelf-life extension technology like this that exists,” Dewar claims. “A lot of shelf-life technologies are passive. Ours actively reduces microbes in the pack; we’re ‘cleaning’ the product, if you like.”
Although ozone (an activated form of oxygen) has been used in the food industry for many years, for example in water and in warehouses, Dewar says it has only been applied at low concentrations.
“This is completely new technology because no one has ever been able to generate such high concentrations of ozone in a very small space, and handle it safely,” he comments. “That’s why we’ve patented our technology, and now no one else is allowed to use it in the same way.”
Developed by Anacail founder and chief scientist Dr. Hugh Potts, the technology is being used as an approach to chemical-free surface decontamination across the food, hygiene and medical industries because of its effectiveness in killing bacteria and human pathogens like listeria, salmonella and e-coli.
“Ozone is a non-specific germicide,” explains microbiologist Dr. Louise Crozier, who works as a Senior Food Scientist at Anacail. “It’s able to attack any type of microbe, bacteria, yeast or virus. It’s very reactive, meaning it acts very fast. It creates holes in the surface of cells to kill those organisms, and it cancels out any resistance.”
“It’s very clever,” adds Dewar. “In effect, we are generating a high-care area inside the pack of fruit itself.”
Ozone gas is also naturally occurring – it forms the layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that protects life from the sun’s harmful rays. Anacail says ozone is safe to use in food decontamination, and none can leak out from the sealed packs.
“It’s in what we breathe; it’s everywhere in the atmosphere, and it keeps us safe,” states Dewar. “Ozone is completely safe for use on most foods. It reverts back to oxygen and doesn’t leave any chemical residues on the fruit. We’ve got data to show that.”
The application process
Delivered via a special machine engineered by Anacail, the technology is applied to packs of produce at the end of a supplier’s existing production line, before labelling. Currently, the machine only works with tray-sealed packs, although there is the potential for flow-wrap packs in the future.
“It’s a large production machine that runs at 100-120 packs per minute,” Dewar comments. “It slots into the end of the production line; you only need a couple of metres of space.”
Using high-voltage electrodes, the technology creates a cold plasma system that generates a high concentration of ozone behind the sealed lid film of a plastic pack, which converts a small percentage of the oxygen inside the pack of produce into ozone.
“Ozone is generated from the oxygen (O2) in the air inside the pack,” Dr. Crozier explains. “It only converts 0.1% of the oxygen. It breaks the bonds of the oxygen in to a very small number and they recombine to form ozone (or O3) inside the pack. In less than 10 minutes, the O3 reverts back to O2.”
While the machine comes as standard, Anacail collaborates with its customers to ascertain their individual problems and goals. That way, the team can design bespoke trials to best determine the right ozone treatment process to achieve optimal results for their specific product.
“What’s important to one berry producer who’s looking for additional shelf-life may be different to a tomato supplier who needs a ready-to-eat product,” points out Dr. Crozier. “It’s important that we apply the right treatment for each product.”
From here on, Anacail wants to encourage the global produce industry to take advantage of its innovative technology.
“We think everyone should benefit,” says Dewar. “We’re concentrating on the UK and Europe currently, but, ideally, we’d like our machines to be delivered into lots of different applications worldwide.
“There are still many other fruits and vegetables where we have work to do,” he continues. “We want to try it with potatoes, for example.”
Anacail has other developments in the pipeline too. “We’re looking at the hygiene of seeds in terms of removing pathogens, bacteria etc. as this tends to increase the rate of germination and make the final plant product safer,” reveals Dewar.
“There are many different applications within the food industry for applying our high concentrate ozone into a small space that we haven't considered yet!”
Anacail is exhibiting at The London Produce Show and Conference next month on 5-7 June.
Register here to attend the three-day event at The Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s iconic Park Lane.