Dr. Philip E. Nelson
Dr. Philip E. Nelson, Professor Emeritus at Purdue University, was awarded the 2007 World Food Prize for his innovative breakthrough technologies which have revolutionized the food industry, particularly in the area of large-scale storage and transportation of fresh fruit and vegetables using bulk aseptic food processing.
An icon of the food world, Dr. Nelson’s discoveries have made major contributions to the availability of nutritious foods worldwide. Commonly credited for recognizing the untapped potential of aseptic technologies for much larger scale applications, the aseptic bulk processing and packaging technology pioneered by Nelson can be found in almost every country in the world.
More on Dr. Nelson
Throughout history, the ability to preserve food has been central to ensuring adequate nutrition and countering hunger. Millions of people throughout the world, especially people with low incomes, the elderly, disabled, and other transit-dependent populations, have had difficulty accessing fresh, nutritious food. Before the widespread use of bulk aseptic food processing, many of the foods being shipped around the world (or even locally) would spoil before reaching their final destinations. There was usually a rush to process and can fresh fruits and vegetables before they could be contaminated, spoil, or experience loss of flavor and nutritional value. Dr. Nelson’s innovations greatly enhanced the effectiveness of preserving food. They have been especially effective in developing countries where much of the harvested crop was lost to spoilage. Up to half of the food supply was lost in these countries due to storage, packaging, and transport deficits. Many of these barriers have been torn down with Nelson’s advances.
Born in 1934, Philip Nelson grew up on a 500-acre farm near Morristown, Indiana. In his youth, Nelson helped during planting and harvesting seasons on the farm and also in his family’s tomato canning factory, known as the Blue River Packing Company. The canning operation was subject to the seasonality and perishability of the tomato crop; it operated at peak capacity for a short period of time after harvest, employing around 300 workers. At the age of 15, Nelson was introduced to Purdue University’s extension system after winning that organization’s 4-H award for the 24 perfect tomatoes he had entered in competition at the Indiana State Fair. For this accomplishment, he was given the title, “Tomato King.”
Returning to the Nelson farm and canning operation after obtaining his Bachelor of Science degree in general agriculture in 1956 from Purdue, Nelson became the plant manager of Blue River Packing. However, the hub of the tomato industry was moving west to California during the late 1950s and the decision was made to close the Blue River enterprise.
Nelson was drawn back to Purdue and appointed a part-time instructor in Purdue’s Horticulture Department in 1961 while he studied for his Ph.D. By 1967, he had earned the degree with his dissertation topic on the volatility of flavors in canned tomatoes. Purdue’s Dean of the College of Agriculture, Earl Butz, who later served as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, offered Nelson a tenure-track faculty position at Purdue, leading ultimately to a nearly 50-year career at the university.
In the 1970s, Nelson was part of a National Academy of Sciences team that traveled to India to study the problem of food spoilage, which at the time affected 50 percent of all the food produced in the country. Nelson began to explore ways that his technology could be used in developing countries to preserve food for domestic distribution and consumption and for export and sale overseas.
Dr. Nelson currently holds a position as Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Purdue University, after retiring from full-time work in the spring of 2010.
Drawing on his years of experience, Dr. Nelson decided to explore ways to improve tomato processing methods. His hope was that, by being able to hold large quantities of the product to a date beyond harvest and then process it at intervals throughout the year into various products, he could help the tomato industry become less seasonal while maintaining and enhancing the nutritional content and flavor of the final product. Though he started with tomatoes, Dr. Nelson’s work extended to many other foods, as well with his development of aseptic food processing and packaging.
Dr. Nelson’s unique and revolutionary discoveries include:
- Refining and perfecting the heat sterilization and cooling methods for preserving vegetable or fruit products;
- Developing experimental 100 gallon, sterilized carbon steel tanks coated with an epoxy resin for holding the sterilized product at ambient temperature (later on, tanks ranging in size from 40,000 to over 1 million gallons were manufactured using Nelson’s protocols);
- Designing and constructing aseptic valves for the large containers, preventing microorganisms from moving through the valve stem into the sterile system;
- Refining a system for smaller-scale, in-bag storage (1 gallon to 300 gallons), allowing processors to fill multilayer, inexpensive sterile flexible packaging material with aseptically processed products;
- Perfecting a special fitment for the aseptic bags allowing sterile product to be introduced without re-contamination (this fitment was evaluated by Nelson as a membrane that is ruptured during the fill, and then resealed with a sterilized foil cap);
- Increasing the capacity of bulk bag-in-box technology up to 3,000 gallon capacity for cost-effective shipping of processed food; and
- Developing, with a Norwegian ship builder, the installation of aseptic bulk storage systems ranging in size from 1.8 million gallons to 8 million gallons into the hulls of ships for transport of orange juice across the globe.
In pursuing his goals, Nelson was able to accomplish what had not been done before: to successfully bring together several crucial aspects of the aseptic processing system — parts of which already existed and parts of which he discovered, designed, or modified during the course of his scientific research — that are used today in aseptic packaging installations across the globe.
Dr. Nelson’s research and achievements in aseptic processing technology have benefited developing countries by providing an inexpensive packaging and shipping system for importing and exporting food stuffs. Humanitarian feeding programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by Land O’Lakes since 2000 have provided aseptically packaged milk and biscuit products as part of school nutritional programs in the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Because the durable, sterile packaging ensures the delivery of safe and nutritious products to remote regions, food loss has been minimized. In 2005 and 2006, in the Philippines, less than 0.2% of the school-feeding products were lost.
Portable water packaged in flexible material was transported to Southeast Asia to provide relief after the tsunami hit in 2004 and to the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina. While these applications were not aseptic, the convenience of use and cost-effectiveness of the flexible packaging resulting from Nelson’s research was clearly demonstrated to global relief agencies, and developments to expand relief programs to include aseptic water processing, storage and supply are actively being pursued.
The food science breakthroughs emanating from Nelson’s Purdue laboratories and his collaboration with entrepreneurs and companies in the United States and abroad have transformed the vegetable and fruit packing industry from a “fresh-pack” system of putting up product once a year, to a re-manufacturing industry making a variety of products year round. Specifically in the case of orange juice, bulk aseptic storage and transportation has made possible wide-scale distribution of not-from-concentrate juice.
Nelson’s early realization of the importance of eliminating the seasonality of commercial processing and packaging, and eliminating post-harvest spoilage, buoyed his search for solutions. While transforming the processing industry, his innovative research has also made possible wider choices for consumers, greater stability and shelf-life of food products, and general longevity in the food supply, and has created dramatic and long-range feeding opportunities.
Dr. Nelson was awarded the Institute of Food Technologists’ prestigious Nicholas Appert Award in 1995 and would go on to serve as IFT president from 2001 - 2002. Among the other numerous awards and honors Dr. Nelson has received are the Food Processing Putman Food Award, the National Award for Agricultural Excellence, the Forty-Niner Service Award, the USDA Secretary’s Award for Personal and Professional Excellence, and the H.D. Brown Food Processing Person of the Year Award.
In 2007, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels announced the creation of the Philip E. Nelson Innovation Prize, recognizing outstanding Hoosier scientists for their discoveries, research, and inventions. In 2010, Purdue University rededicated its campus Food Science Building as the Philip E. Nelson Hall of Food Science to honor Dr. Nelson’s legacy.
Dr. Nelson has served appointments to the US government, including to the USDA National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education and Economic Advisory Board, the USDA Specialty Crops Committee and the USDA Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Drawing on his years of experience in his family’s canning factory, Dr. Nelson knew that any successful methods that could be discovered and implemented to prevent post-harvest spoilage would be a great boon to the food processing industry and the consumer. For his outstanding achievements from 1970 to the present, Dr. Nelson has come to be recognized as the leader of modern food science and technology. His pioneering technology, used in many developing countries, has made possible the economical and safe delivery of nutritious food to the poor and undernourished around the world, significantly increasing the availability and accessibility of food worldwide.
In addition to his scientific discoveries, Dr. Nelson has also had an enormous impact during his career in educating food scientists. He built one of the largest and most recognized food science departments in the world at Purdue from 1983 to the present. Also, over the past several decades, thousands of professionals have participated in workshops in aseptic processing developed and led by Dr. Nelson at Purdue, and around the country and the world.
According to Charles Sizer, Vice President of Research, Universal Food and Beverage Company, Dr. Nelson’s discoveries “have become the predominant method for the preservation of perishable products in Third World countries, and thus was born the ‘Aseptic Revolution’.” Will Scholle, President and CEO of Scholle Corporation, notes Nelson’s “monumental impact in improving the way the world stores and transports its food supply.” Dr. Nelson’s legacy continues as many of the emerging value-added uses of aseptic processing and storage continue to be applied and adopted worldwide.
Dr. Nelson has numerous publications, authoring or co-authoring more than 65 papers, with books including Fruit and Vegetable Juice Processing and Principles of Aseptic Processing and Packaging of Food.