U.S. Food Scientist Named 2007 World Food Prize Recipient

By Kathryn McConnell
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - Philip Nelson, a noted U.S. food scientist who developed post-harvest technologies that allow the large-scale storage, packaging and transportation of fruit and vegetable products, has been named recipient of the 2007 World Food Prize.

Nelson's "pioneering work" has made it possible to package and ship to other countries large quantities of food without its losing nutritional value or taste, Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, said at a June 18 ceremony at the State Department.

The work has helped increase the "accessibility … and reliability of the world's food supply," said Henrietta Fore, recently appointed acting director of U.S. foreign assistance, responsible for coordinating all U.S. government foreign aid programs.

Nelson's research led to the discovery of methods and equipment to sterilize perishable food without the use of chemicals and preserve it at safe temperatures in lined, bacteria-free carbon steel tanks ranging in capacity from 379 liters to nearly 1.9 million liters.

Nelson also developed a "bag-in-box" technology for preserving and shipping smaller quantities of foods. The flexible sterile bags are stored within one-time-use cardboard containers or reusable wooden boxes holding up to 1,136 liters, Quinn said in an interview with USINFO.

The technologies significantly reduce post-harvest waste and spoilage and allow for holding crops beyond harvest, to be processed throughout the year then shipped to plants around the world for final processing and packaging, Quinn said.

The technologies also have made it "affordable and convenient" to transport a variety of safe food to developing countries without the need for refrigeration, according to the foundation's June 18 press release.

Nelson's technologies have spread throughout the global food industry, Quinn said.

Humanitarian feeding programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and managed by Minnesota-based Land O'Lakes are using Nelson's technologies to provide bacteria-free packaged milk and biscuits as part of school nutrition programs in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Quinn said.

Citrosuco, a Brazilian juice company, uses the tank technology to ship millions of liters of orange juice to the United States and Europe, Nelson told USINFO in a separate interview.

The technologies also have been used to bring potable water and emergency food aid to survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and to people in other crisis situations worldwide, Nelson said.

Nelson's work is "tearing down barriers to a food secure world," World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director Josette Sheeran said at the ceremony.

The World Food Programme is the food aid arm of the United Nations and a partner of the United States in the fight against world hunger. The United States provides nearly half of WFP's financial support.

In 1991, the Institute of Food Technologies rated Nelson's processing and packaging technologies as among the top innovations worldwide in modern food technology, Quinn said at the ceremony.

The 21-year-old World Food Prize was established by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, recognized around the world as the "father of the Green Revolution." Borlaug is credited with saving millions of people from starvation during the 1960s and early 1970s.

The prize is awarded annually to individuals who have made significant contributions to improving the quality, quantity and availability of food in the world, according to the foundation.

Nelson, an agriculture professor at Purdue University in Indiana, began his food science research work in 1969 with tomatoes and later included a variety of seasonal crops. He has received several grants from USDA in support of his work, he said.

Purdue is one of several "land grant" universities in the United States designated by Congress to receive federal funds for agricultural research and education. Approximately 70 percent of World Food Prize winners have had some association with the land grant system, Quinn said.

Nelson and his Purdue research team now are developing a process to sterilize the surfaces of post-harvest fruits and vegetables using a chloride dioxide gas that would leave no residue. The process would benefit both exporters and importers of food in the United States and producers around the world, he said.

The $250,000 World Food Prize will be presented to Nelson at an October 18 ceremony in Iowa, where the foundation is based.

More information on the prize is available on the World Food Prize Web site.