By Monika Ghosh and Sharon Lewis This article is the last of a four-part Tech’s Year in Review series reviewing developments across industries in 2020. It discusses the world of healthtech and biotech, foodtech and agritech, and sustainability. This article is the last of a four-part [...]
Meat the future with this aseptically-packaged pork chop which can last for up to two years unrefrigerated.
The pork chops Jumpstart received from the IXON team sat, unrefrigerated, in our office for close to a month. Though it would be easy to claim that this delay was in the name of thorough product testing, we were actually all a little hesitant about the idea of eating it – even though, through the translucent packaging, the meat looked and felt fresh and appetizing.
Finally, we geared up one Thursday for an impromptu cooking session. As instructed, we seared the pork chops on a smoking hot pan for just a few minutes each side (though we did break the rules slightly by adding a little garlic powder and pepper). The end result: juicy, delectable pork chops which, if we hadn’t known that they were kept at room temperature for the past month, would have been indistinguishable from fresh ones.
IXON was founded by Felix Cheung and Elton Ho, who met while studying for their postgraduate degrees in Food Analysis and Food Safety Management at Hong Kong Baptist University. The two spent six years developing the ASAP technology and after launching IXON, were soon presenting at acclaimed European foodtech conferences. The company attracted little press coverage at home in Hong Kong until its Kickstarter campaign launched on October 20 this year. Within two hours, the campaign had exceeded its funding goal.
In essence, Cheung and Ho have pioneered a new process of removing bacteria from food and thereby preventing rot. The uniqueness lies in preserving the moistness and flavor of fresh food, something that methods like canning or drying cannot achieve.
Food goes bad because of bacteria, which multiply over time and cause food to rot. In canning, food is sterilized by heating it to 121°C to kill the bacteria. This also affects the flavor of the food, making it drier and comparatively flavorless.
In contrast, the ASAP method sterilizes each element of the product separately, without drying out the food. The bag is sterilized with vaporized hydrogen peroxide, a common technique used for dairy cartons. The olive oil and salt are heated to 160°C for five minutes. The meat’s surface temperature is heated to 160°C for 30 seconds to kill bacteria (which only live on the surface of the meat). The ingredients are then added to the sterilized package, sealed, and cooked sous-vide at 60°C for an hour.
The resulting product is a pork chop that can ostensibly remain fresh for two years without refrigeration. During the company’s pitch at Techstars Farm to Fork Accelerator Demo Day, Cheung went as far as to show that he’d eaten a two-year-old sirloin steak preserved with ASAP technology, with no ill effects. The team also has a sophisticated process in place to ensure that no bacteria have been given the chance to survive within each packet.
Flavor aside, the draw of the ASAP technology is the beneficial impact it offers to our planet. Over 20% of the 263 million tons of meat currently produced every year is lost or wasted (FAO). ASAP eliminates the necessity for cold-chain storage, saving energy. The founders also hope that it will help to improve nutrition and food equality.
In business, ASAP will also reduce costs for traditional meat producers and supermarkets. IXON has already spoken with a number of meat producers, who Cheung says have all been excited about the potential of ASAP.
“They are just worried about the customer perception of the product given that it is shelf-stable at room temperature for two years,” Cheung says. He adds that after hitting what he calls ‘the sweet spot’ – 4 metric tons of meat per day – any production quota above this mark will result in economies of scale for producers.
Supermarkets and convenience stores will similarly benefit, as they will no longer have to worry about moving their meat inventory before it expires. This will also help to prevent food waste.
Having spent years fine-tuning the technology, Cheung and Ho said on the Kickstarter page that the funding would be used to automate IXON’s production line with a view to producing at scale. Around 80% of the process is currently manual, according to Cheung, so automation would offer some significant time and cost benefits. Another goal is to make all its single-use packaging 100% recyclable after moving into mass production.
IXON offers both pork chops and sirloin steaks. A two-piece set, available to backers of the Kickstarter campaign, costs US$65 – a steep price to pay for meat on an average day, perhaps, but in line with costs at some of Hong Kong’s premium supermarkets. Automating the production process is likely to bring the price down a bit, but the company will still source the best possible meat, oil, and salt, meaning that it will remain a luxury product for the foreseeable future.
As the world moves toward more responsible patterns of consumption and production, technologies like ASAP will find places of increasing importance in food production networks. The hardest task will lie in changing consumer perception, but as startups like Uber, Airbnb, and Spotify have shown, every market can be disrupted. The wasteful food industry is ripe for change.