New freezing technology making the traditionally unfreezable, delectable.
by Graeme Glen
The two managers from one of Tsukiji fish market's largest wholesalers looked on skeptically as we pitched ABI Japan's Cells Alive System (CAS) freezing. We were there to present our proposal for a frozen sea urchin product. One of the managers knew of our new freezing technology. The other, unfortunately, had not. "That's crazy talk," he said. "You can't freeze sea urchin roe without additives." He added that some of Japan's biggest seafood companies had failed miserably after investing millions of dollars in the attempt. This is one of the joys of marketing CAS, a remarkable new technology capable of freezing products impossible to freeze otherwise. People tend to think if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The challenge is how to market the technology. Our marketing effort got a boost when a fleet of CAS-equipped tuna long liners tied up at the pier of the Tsukiji fish market. A 70-kilogram Big Eye Tuna was placed on the block, the rest of the catch having been pre-sold. The tuna sold for an astounding JPY11,550/kg, three times the market rate. This price was due to the excitement generated by the rare sale of a CAS frozen tuna. More important than the welcome publicity, it indicated the market was ready for and is very interested in CAS frozen products.
The hard eye
Let's assume CAS freezing to be superior to current freezing technologies. If CAS freezers cost the same amount as conventional ones, the choice would be a no brainer. But they do not. A CAS unit costs about twice as much as some conventional units. So, where is the CAS benefit? The world's existing freezer infrastructure is based on old tech. As soon as a CAS frozen product leaves the plant for a conventional freezer environment, the CAS benefit begins to diminish, the ability to prevent oxidization dropping to normal levels. However, CAS has demonstrated its potential, having been adopted by a major Japanese shipping company.
The company is building CAS stockers into its refrigerated containers. The CAS benefits are reduced energy costs and superior preservation at higher temperatures. The latter allows the company to charge more. Reduced costs and added revenue will eventually offset the capital outlay. Other CAS benefits exist in new high-end frozen markets. People appreciate the difference between fresh and frozen. Fresh is always preferable. Even the humble chicken becomes gourmet fare when prepared fresh. Yet, when bought bulk at the local freezer center, chicken is reduced to an everyday food, palatable, yet uninspiring. Imagine if all the subtle textures of an organically raised free-range chicken could be preserved, shipped and marketed anywhere in the world? CAS offers what freezing promised in 1834: perfect preservation of food over long periods of time.
Business and market reactions
CAS is already being used in Alaska to preserve milt and roe of cod, a product that had been impossible to freeze and still maintain market value. Suppliers of ingredients for French cuisine use CAS to preserve delicate doughs, foie grois, duck meat, and truffles. The list grows yearly as more foods -- cream, milk, green mangos, sea urchin, sashimi grade seafood, and sushi -- are tested and marketed.
Sushi is a good example of the possibilities of CAS freezing. Until now, additives were required to replace the starch that breaks down during the freezing process. These additives affect the flavor and the texture of the rice. CAS freezing allows for the first ever additive-free frozen sushi. CAS has also made possible the freezing of sea urchin, or uni. Efforts to freeze uni had met with mediocre results. The reason was the delicate nature of the uni cell walls. CAS, in conjunction with a patented defrosting technique, has allowed uni to be harvested at the peak of its flavor, frozen, and transported for storage until Japan's year-end holiday season.
Another problem with conventional freezing is that it leaves a significant amount of bacteria in food even at temperatures below -60Ž. Norio Owada, CAS's inventor, gives the example of tuna, which starts to break down after nine to twelve months of storage with conventional freezing and storage. Tuna is well suited to freezing with CAS as it can be kept for two years at an economical - 40Ž. CAS freezing, unlike conventional freezing, does not result in discoloring. The three tuna long liners making their first deliveries to Tsukiji were all outfitted with CAS freezing systems, and they seemed to be as much the catch-of-the-day as their fish that went for as much as 90 percent above the market value. Indeed, CAS freezing is not just some fantasy of things that could be. It is earning hard currency in the world's most competitive fish market.
Inventor Norio Owada would like to see his invention benefit fishermen in developing countries. One project being jointly carried out with local CO-OPs would provide the CAS system to small-lot mango farmers to boost the price of their product. He has also equipped a processing barge with CAS freezers to preserve the catch of shrimp fishermen in Sierra Leone. Still another of his projects helps tuna fishermen in the Philippines. Under his supervision, Filipino tuna fishermen will be able to catch, process and package tuna for sale directly to Japanese supermarkets. This will greatly increase the selling price of tuna. Owada feels that his invention can help close the gap between rich and poor in developing countries. JI
Graeme Glen, CEO of ABI International Marketing
Graeme is based in Sapporo, where he divides his time between marketing frozen sushi and CAS freezing technology and shoveling snow during the long, cold, horrible winters.
The CAS Mechanism
CAS freezing works on the simple principle that water molecules cannot cluster and form cell-wall-damaging ice crystals if they are in motion during the freezing process. Whereas a microwave vibrates water molecules to generate heat, CAS uses a rotating electrical field to spin water molecules. This spinning motion prevents water molecules from clustering. The result is a frozen product that has zero damage from freezing. This process has been granted patents in the EU, U.S.A., China, Australia, and else-where. Cell wall damage from ice crystals is responsible for the loss of flavor, texture and aroma of frozen products. CAS frozen products, when defrosted, retain 99.7% of their aroma, flavor and texture. Fatty foods, notorious for being easily oxidized even when stored at - 60Ž for one year, can have their storage life extended to two years or more when stored at - 40Ž in a CAS environment.