Dr. Philip E. Nelson
Philip E. Nelson of Purdue University revolutionized the food industry by developing innovative technologies for large-scale “aseptic” packaging, storage, and transportation of fresh fruit juices and vegetables. His bulk sterile processing has reduced losses to spoilage and provided millions of people around the world access to fresh, nutritious food. Nelson, recognized as the leader of modern food science and technology, saw the untapped potential of aseptic technologies for large-scale applications. He went on to develop bulk processing and packaging technology, which can be found in almost every country in the world.
Born in 1934, Philip Nelson grew up on a 500-acre farm near Morristown, Indiana. In his youth, he helped with 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 gradually moving west to California during the late 1950s, and the Blue River enterprise was forced to close.
Nelson was drawn back to Purdue, where he was appointed a part-time instructor in the 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 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 half 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.
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 goods being shipped around the world or even locally would spoil before reaching their final destinations. This meant that immediately upon ripening, fruits and vegetables were rushed to processing and canning facilities before they could be contaminated, spoil, or experience loss of flavor and nutritional value.
Drawing on his years of experience, Nelson explored ways to improve tomato-processing methods. By developing methods to safely store large quantities of tomato product well beyond harvest, he helped the tomato industry become less seasonal while maintaining and enhancing the nutritional content and flavor of the final product. Nelson’s work extended to many other foods as well, with his development of aseptic food processing and packaging.
Nelson’s unique and revolutionary discoveries include refining and perfecting the heat sterilization and cooling methods for preserving vegetable and fruit products. He developed 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.
Additionally, he designed and constructed aseptic valves for the large containers, preventing microorganisms from moving through the valve stem into the sterile system. He refined a system for smaller-scale, in-bag storage – one gallon to 300 gallons – allowing processors to fill multilayer, inexpensive, sterile, and flexible packaging material with aseptically processed products.
His innovations also included perfecting a special fitment for the aseptic bags, allowing sterile product to be introduced without re-contamination; 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.
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 foodstuffs. Humanitarian feeding programs funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by Land O’Lakes starting in 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.
Potable water packaged in flexible material was transported to Southeast Asia to provide relief after the 2004 tsunami 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. Developments to expand relief programs to include aseptic water processing, storage, and supply were then 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, with orange juice, bulk aseptic storage and transportation has made possible wide-scale distribution of not-from-concentrate juice.
Nelson’s innovations greatly enhanced the effectiveness of preserving fresh foods, and earned him the 2007 World Food Prize. His aseptic packaging, both large-scale and small-scale, was especially effective in developing countries, where much of the harvested crops are prone to loss by spoilage. Up to half of the food supply would be lost in these countries due to storage, packaging, and transport deficiencies. Many of these barriers were eliminated with Nelson’s scientific and technological advances.
Among the other numerous awards and honors he has received are the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) prestigious Nicholas Appert Award in 1995, the Food Processing Putman Food Award, the National Award for Agricultural Excellence, the USDA Secretary’s Award for Personal and Professional Excellence, and the H.D. Brown Food Processing Person of the Year Award. Nelson also served as IFT president from 2001 to 2002.
In 2007, the same year he won The World Food Prize, 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.
Nelson has served appointments to the U.S. government, including; 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.
According to Charles Sizer, Vice President of Research at the Universal Food and Beverage Company, 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.” Nelson’s legacy continues as many of the emerging value-added uses of aseptic processing and storage continue to be applied and adopted worldwide.