Food Packaging Engineer Developed Innovations

If you’ve ever opened up a package and the food inside smells delightful, you probably have Kenneth Swartzel to thank.

As a food science professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Swatzel has spent more than 30 years working to keep food fresher. He’s pioneered food packagingmethods to preserve food in flexible packages that are efficient and help make food taste good longer, reports the Raleigh News & Observer.

Swartzel has led the university’s Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences for 11 years. He developed two research centers that work with manufacturers and the government to get packaging innovations into the marketplace.

His research has resulted in dozens of patents and planted the seed for six companies in North Carolina. “When you open up that package and the aroma fills the room and the color is beautiful and bright,” he says, “that’s what we’ve been trying to do, is unlock those doors.”

He is well recognized in his field. The Institute of Food Technologists gave him its highest award last month for lifetime achievement.

Food packaging is such a part of our lives that we hardly notice it; we notice only when there’s a problem or difficulty. So few realize all the work that goes into successful packaging.

“You’re not supposed to think about it,” Swatzel says. “It’s just supposed to taste good and be safe.”

Swartzel wanted to learn how to fly in the U.S. Air Force so he could eventually get into the space program. But he failed the Air Force’s physical because he did not have good depth perception.

So he had to adjust his career goals. He switched from aerospace engineering to food engineering. The News & Observer explains further:

His work came to focus on ‘continuous high-speed thermal processing,’ systems that run foods through a series of heating and cooling elements to preserve them rather than heating them in cans. This method allows foods to be processed as little as possible while killing dangerous bacteria.

“It’s all about airflow,” he says. “I’m still flying, only I’m mentally flying particles through a pipeline.”

Swartzel soon saw the benefits of aseptic processing, in which food can be stored in flexible packaging at room temperature for long periods. They are widely used to preserve fruit and vegetable purees, and milk. For these reasons, hospitals and the military need these products.

Swartzel also recently helped create standards that will guide technology for containing foods that have pieces with different sizes — chunky soups, for instance. Safely packaging these complicated foods have baffled engineers for years.

Creating new technologies does come with pitfalls. Swartzel has had to spend countless hours defending his patents in lawsuits.

Having a third-party scientific expert witness is always a good resource to have in these cases. The scientists and engineers at Polymer Solutions Inc., are often asked to provide litigation support for civil and criminal cases involving patent infringement, trade secret theft, and product liability.

Source: “Tar Heel of the Week: If your packaged food still tastes good, thank Ken Swartzel,” News & Observer, 8/10/13
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