Upfront: Out of the Ice Age

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2004

Technology to freeze by.

by John Dodd

He serves fresh carrot juice, the real stuff, which smells like it has just been pulped. It tastes great, full bodied, and I am thinking that he must be using those special juicy Ibaraki organic carrots that are always so good in salads.

Inventor Norio Owada hits us with the truth: "Not bad for juice frozen two years ago, is it?"

It's hard to believe. All the frozen carrot juice I have ever drunk suffered from some separation of the solids from liquid, deterioration of color, little or no aroma, and an oxidized taste that told you it wasn't fresh.

This is our introduction to CAS (Cells Alive System), Owada's heavily patented and soon to be launched ultimate food freezing system--a system which freezes so well that even delicate fish roe, cuts of steak, tofu and fresh picked peaches suffer no loss of color, texture, aroma, or of course, taste. A system so effective, that where once 5-star chefs in Tokyo were paying big bucks for chilled air-freighted produce, they are now eagerly lining up to buy CAS-frozen duck breasts and truffles from France and cod roe from Alaska.

Food security
The man behind CAS is 60-year old Owada, an engineering genius who envisions a world where food can be stockpiled for years without going bad or losing its nutritional value, where sheer distance from markets is no longer a challenge. He plans to use his invention to build a multinational network of food exporters shipping at reasonable cost produce from safe environments--such as lamb chops from New Zealand, lobsters from Tasmania, and tropical fruit from South America--all economically yet slowly shipped to the tables of Tokyo, New York and London, and all in pristine condition.

Owada tells us of Japan's dependence on other countries for 70% of her food and how food security is so important to the nation. He reminds us that after years of steady integration back into the global economy with postwar industrialization, the nation was shocked when, amid the oil crises of the 70s, Richard Nixon suddenly ordered the suspension of American soy bean shipments to Japan. This struck deep into the national psyche, and today food security is a very real government objective.

Then Owada points to another form of food security, related to the many recent outbreaks of diseases such as BSE and chicken flu. Whether or not these diseases are preventable, the fact remains that when they are detected, entire national herds must be slaughtered and disposed of. There is little opportunity for food wholesalers to provide continuous supplies of any particular staple food item, and entire sectors of the economy can be damaged. Witness the damage done to the beef bowl (gyudon) restaurant chains after shipments of US beef were halted in March 2004.

Just as there are strategic oil reserves in times of war, so Owada sees the day when in times of widespread disease, there will be a strategic food reserve as well. And CAS is the key to making it possible.

Getting to know CAS
Owada's lab is located in the Tokatsu TechnoPlaza technology complex in Chiba, about an hour northeast of Tokyo station. After the carrot juice, he takes us out back to see his baby--CAS. What we see is a large freezing unit with an LCD monitor showing an internal freezer temperature of minus 60 degrees Celsius. Inside CAS we see a bunch of large power and gas lines, highlighting the fact that this is no kitchen-variety freezing unit.

Attached to the main freezing chamber are storage units, stacked with food samples frozen anywhere between one month and three years ago. Fresh food loaded into the CAS freezing chamber is frozen by a remarkable process involving magnetism and modulated waves of cold air. The process involves supercooling the liquids inside the food (literally from the inside out), but preventing freezing, until a critical point. Then when freezing is suddenly precipitated the supercooled food item, such as a pork cutlet, will freeze in as little as fifteen minutes, about five to six times faster than conventional methods.

The cost of a basic CAS unit is about $500,000. This is about 20 to 100 percent more expensive than a conventional freezer unit. But given that normally frozen food has to be dumped after three to 12 months or so, and it doesn't taste anywhere near as good, the value of the CAS system is soon retrieved through the product's longer shelf life and sale-ability.

How is CAS different?
There are many claims of breakthroughs in freezing technology. But almost without exception, such developments consist of bigger motors and air flow, different freezer shapes, adding gases to better conduct cold air, and other developments. All these systems suffer from a primary flaw: they only freeze from the outside in, and thus the penetration of the cold to the center of a food object gets more difficult as the exterior freezes solid. As a result of the unequal interior/exterior temperatures, there is a capillary action on liquids in the food, which dries the food out as well as damaging the food cell walls--thus compromising the quality of product once it is thawed again.

Another problem with conventional freezing is that it leaves a significant amount of bacteria in the food, even at temperatures of minus 60 degrees Celsius. Owada gives the example of tuna, which at minus 60 degrees or more, starts to break down and become inedible after about 9 to twelve months of storage.

CAS solves these problems through three core principles:

• Retain the texture and flavor of food by freezing it quickly and evenly--using magnetic fields allow the core of the object being frozen to supercool--and thus suppress the formation of the ice crystals which cause all the damage inherent with freezing.

• Prevent the oxidation and consequent deterioration of food by absorbing oxygen in the cold air pumped out around the food. The pulsating air minimizes the formation of ice clustering.

• Reduce bacteria in the food and allow it to keep longer by pulsing the food with an oscillating magnetic field during storage--allowing the products to be kept for two to three years, or even longer.

Ongoing storage
Once a product is frozen, it must still be stored indefinitely. Even with a temperature of more than minus 30 degrees Celsius, regular meats and fruit start to deteriorate within a few months to one year. The CAS system, however, continually applies a low-level harmonic oscillating magnetic field to the food. The field works on the atoms within the food, aligning the magnetic moment of the electrons, and the magnetic flux attacks any bacteria present in the food and keeps them at manageable levels.

Owada tells us that his system is already being used by customers in the agriculture, fishery, meat and dairy fields, and as we can testify, the quality of preservation is astounding. We believe that consumers will soon accept this new process. However, since much of the world's best food suppliers are in remote corners of the planet, the task now is to create a storage system that gets the products from the original harvesting and freezing site through to the consumers. Owada is now working on a unit which will fit into a standard reefer container, and apparently will launch the product later this year.

CAS is more than just a new invention in the lab. The product is already being used in Alaska, to preserve cod roe for aficianados back in Japan, and by French cooking ingredients suppliers, to preserve delicate doughs, fois grois, duck meat, truffles, and similar products. From the list, it is obvious that the initial usage of CAS is to keep in near-perfect condition luxury foods which have a short season--truffles being an excellent example--but the storage of more standard fare is on its way.

How good is the system? While one can talk about the quality of retention of fats and essential oils, food texture and taste preservation, the proof is in the eating. And in this area, Owada is having some resounding success. Already Japanese chefs of 2- and 3-star restaurants are using French cooking and sushi ingredients. The chefs are saying that customers are surprised and delighted that they can order out-of-season dishes--that still taste fresh. They also like the fact that the marrow in cuts of meat doesn't go black, and that the fats and flesh don't lose their texture and start to crumble.

The promise of the CAS system is that it will allow producers to ship direct to resellers, without layers of processing and storage companies in between. This means that ethnic staple foods will be available to consumers in other countries in their original condition--curries will retain the hint of delicate spices, and calamari an authentic touch of herbs--qualities just not possible with conventional freezing or retort pouches. Owada expects that the food supply system in the USA in particular will experience significant changes as CAS starts to gain a foothold in that country. Not only is America ethnically diverse enough to demand foods from other countries, but the nation already has an established culture of consuming out-of-season produce--something which CAS can provide at reasonable cost.

This quality of food presentation has a number of implications in the food industry. Owada points out that instead of French food producers having to air-freight fresh or chilled food to Tokyo's exclusive restaurants, they can now send CAS-processed food by sea. This provides seasonal time-shift plus substantially lower prices. Also, instead of restaurants having to reduce prices for frozen food, because of inferior quality, indeed, they can charge the same or even slightly higher prices than fresh food--because it is likely to be consumed out of season Then there is, of course, the capability to create a "global village" concept for regular food consumption, where ready-to-eat meals are captured at their full quality and delivered a year later and thousands of kilometers away to a family wanting to eat food from their native country.

As further refinements to the CAS system occur, Owada's dream of national and personal food reserves will not be so far fetched. This would have to be good news not only for nations which are no longer self-sufficient, such as Japan, but also for food producers who want to ensure that their customers can get product regardless of the season and the size of harvest. @

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