Amazon looks to military for food inspiration

The world’s number one e-commerce giant, Amazon, recently revealed that it is working on technology that will produce tasty meals that don’t actually need refrigeration. This technology was first developed for the U.S military and now Jeff Bezos and company are trying to perfect the technology as they muscle their way into the $700 billion U.S. grocery business.

Amazon has discussed the possibility of selling ready-to-eat dishes such as beef stew and vegetable frittata. It is planning to begin sales as early as next year. In an interview with Reuters, Amazon’s marketing department revealed that the dishes would be easy to stockpile and ship since they do not need refrigeration.

The new meals could pair well with Amazon’s AmazonFresh service as well as the planned $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market. Amazon is also testing a checkout-free convenience store.

The dishes currently being developed will differ from the traditional microwave-assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS, in that they are being designed to retain natural flavors and textures at all times. They will also be able to sit on the shelf for a period of over a year without spoiling. This feature was specially developed to suit the company’s storage and delivery business plan.

“They obviously see that this is a potential disruptor and an ability to get to a private brand uniqueness that they’re looking for,” said Greg Spragg, a former Walmart Stores executive and now head of a startup working with MATS technology. “They will test these products with their consumers, and get a sense of where they would go.”

Spragg himself is developing Solves for Food, which is making plans to acquire a MATS machine from 915 Labs that can make 1,800 packages an hour. He indicated that his company is aiming to use that machine at a new food innovation center in northwest Arkansas, which is near Walmart’s headquarters.

Hiring food people ‘like crazy’

The MATS technology was first developed by the U.S. Army’s Natick laboratories more than a decade ago with the sole aim of improving the quality of food that is served to soldiers in combat. The research was conducted at Washington State University after it was approved and funded by the U.S government.

915 Labs said it formed in 2014 and acquired the assets of a business called Food Chain Safety, which previously was working on MATS before facing financial trouble in 2013.

915 Labs also licensed the original patents from the university, its chief executive Michael Locatis said, and its MATS dishes are now pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.

915 labs doesn’t just deal with the U.S military alone. The company has over the years sold machines to both the Australian government and food companies in Asia.

“They have to leapfrog to MATS because they don’t have the refrigerated supply chain like we have in the U.S,” said Locatis, who was an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security until 2013.

According to Locatis, Amazon initiated the startup in Seattle after they got wind of the MATS technology last year at the SIAL Paris food trade show. Amazon followed up on that by sending a delegation to Washington State University that met with Juming Tang, chairman of the school’s biological systems engineering department and a key developer of the technology.

Amazon joined the university’s research team and other companies in March and for the inaugural meeting of the Industrial Microwave Alliance. The group came together to achieve a common objective which is to “accelerate technology transfer of microwave-based food safety.”

Tang revealed in an interview that, “Amazon just started this, they need to deliver meals to homes… They’re hiring food people like crazy.”

Most people still don’t understand why MATS would be worth pursuing. They believe that packaged foods will have little attraction to the high-income members of Amazon’s Prime shopping club.

“I get why new food processing systems that increase shelf life may be good for Amazon,” said Bentley Hall, CEO of fresh food delivery service Good Eggs. “I struggle to see how this solution addresses an actual consumer want or need better than fresh, prepared meals.”

Amazon is looking for ways to distinguish itself from competitors and MATS represents just one way that they can achieve that. The company has also filed for a trademark for cook-it-yourself meal-kits — a move that pushed down shares of Blue Apron Holdings — but has not yet detailed its plans for ready-to-eat meal delivery.

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