Agriculture’s ‘Nobel’ Goes to Purdue Food Science Professor

Laura McNamara

Purdue UniversityPurdue University Professor Philip E. Nelson has secured this year’s World Food Prize for his innovation in food processing and preservation. Purdue’s Scholle Chair Professor in Food Processing developed technology that enables the transport of processed fruits and vegetables without spoilage. Nelson’s “aseptic bulk storage and distribution” process is credited with revolutionizing the global food trade.Purdue Scholle Chair Professor in Food Processing Philip E. Nelson

More than 90 percent of the approximately 24 million tons of fresh tomatoes harvested globally each year are aseptically processed and packaged for year-round remanufacture into various food products, according to the World Food Prize Foundation.

The foundation annually recognizes the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food worldwide. Norman E. Borlaug, recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, established the World Food Prize in 1986. The award is considered the Nobel of agriculture.

Previous prize winners were responsible for such innovations as high-yielding rice hybrids, a vaccine for cattle plague, a technique to control food-damaging insect parasites and the concept of Integrated Pest Management.

Nelson will receive his $250,000 award at an Oct. 18 World Food Prize ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa.

“It’s quite an honor to be recognized and also very humbling because of the past winners,” Nelson said. “This award also recognizes the profession of food science and Purdue. Purdue certainly receives a lot of credit because it’s where I spent my career of some 47 years. Without the support and facilities that were available at Purdue, the aseptic technology wouldn’t have happened.”

Purdue President Martin C. Jischke called Nelson “one of Purdue’s sources of pride.”

“His research and accomplishments in bulk aseptic processing are well-known worldwide,” Jischke said. “His career epitomizes the mission of Purdue University: education, research and engagement.”

Consumers benefit from Nelson’s work every time they visit a supermarket or restaurant, said Randy Woodson, Purdue’s Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture.

“Without his work in aseptic processing, much of the world could not enjoy orange juice, tomato products and other perishable foods,” Woodson said. “He’s become a recognized leader in the food processing industry, as evidenced by the more than 150 companies that interacted with Purdue’s Food Science Department last year alone.”

During Monday’s announcement in Washington, D.C., Nelson was lauded as a food science giant.

“Dr. Nelson’s pioneering work, which began with tomatoes and later included a variety of seasonal crops, has made it possible to produce ultra-large scale quantities of high-quality food,” said Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation. “This food can then be stored for long periods of time and transported to all corners of the world without losing nutritional value or taste.”

In aseptic processing, food is stored at ambient temperatures in sterilized containers free of spoilage organisms and pathogens. The headspace inside the containers is then filled with an inert nitrogen gas.

Nelson’s interest in food preservation technology dates back to his high school years when he worked at his family’s Morristown, Ind., tomato canning factory. The canning operation was subject to the seasonality and perishability of the tomato crop.

Nelson took his food processing background to Purdue, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in general agriculture in 1956. After four years of running the family canning business, Nelson returned to Purdue to study horticulture. He earned a doctoral degree in 1967. Shortly after, he was offered a faculty position.

Over the next few years, Nelson’s tomato processing research led to the first aseptic storage system. Nelson found that by coating steel tanks with epoxy resin and sterilizing valves and filters, food products could be stored and removed without contamination occurring.

Additional research produced a “bag-in-box” aseptic technology for such products as tomato paste.

Nelson partnered with equipment manufacturers to make the technology available to the food industry. In one such partnership, Nelson worked with a Norwegian ship building company to develop a vessel with a 1.8-million-gallon aseptic tank. Today, ships carrying 8 million gallons of food products in aseptic tanks crisscross the ocean.

Nelson retired as head of Purdue’s Department of Food Science in 2003, a department he helped establish in 1983.

Agribusiness, Food, Technology