DES MOINES, Iowa – A scientist who developed new ways to process, transport and store large amounts of fruits and vegetables while maintaining their nutritional value was announced Monday as winner of the 2007 World Food Prize.
Philip E. Nelson, a professor at Purdue University in Indiana, received the $250,000 award that recognizes people who help improve the availability and quality of food throughout the world.
Nelson pioneered technologies that reduce post-harvest waste and spoilage and that have allowed the vegetable and fruit packing industry to move from a system of packaging fresh items once a year to shipping products year-round. The technologies include aseptic, or commercially sterile, storage methods that kill food-spoiling germs.
He also developed carbon steel tanks used to store perishable food at ambient temperatures. The tanks, which can be up to six stories high, are coated with an epoxy resin, a substance that helps keep them pathogen-free.
"It allows us to move product in bulk around the world for use by many, many people," Nelson, 72, said during an interview with The Associated Press. "It also allows not only the U.S., but other countries and developing countries to export product."
Nelson said hundreds of the tanks are used in Florida to store not-for-concentrate orange juice. He also worked with a Norwegian ship builder to install up to 8-million gallon, germ-free storage systems in the hull of boats to transport orange juice across the world.
The winner was announced at a ceremony at the State Department in Washington by Kenneth M. Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, the Des Moines-based organization that awards the prize. The prize was founded by Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties that helped fight starvation in India and Pakistan in the 1960s.
Nelson's developments have been used to help deliver food aid and water during international crises, including the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina's Gulf Coast devastation in 2005. The professor has been teaching his methods to food scientists around the world for nearly 25 years.
"It's just beyond my belief," said Nelson, who has partnered with various companies throughout his career to develop aseptic equipment and processing methods, including a "bag-in-box" system that is used throughout the food industry.
In 1991, the Institute of Food Technologists rated aseptic processing and packaging as the top innovation in food technology, above developments such as freeze drying, food fortification and safe canning processes, the foundation said.
Nelson grew up on a 500-acre farm in Morristown, Ind., and helped out in his family's tomato-canning factory, the Blue River Packing Co., which he eventually managed. After the factory closed in 1960, he became a part-time instructor at Purdue. He earned his doctorate in 1967 and has taught at the university for more than 46 years.
He started by researching ways to process tomatoes — one of the world's most processed foods — which eventually led to other bulk storage research.
The World Food Prize will be formally presented to Nelson during a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol on Oct. 18. He said he's not sure yet what he'll do with the prize money.
"It's so humbling. I'm always asking, 'Did they get the wrong guy?"' he said.