The pressure is building.
Ever since the emergence of the premium coconut water category through brands like Harmless Harvest, Invo and Pure Brazilian, numerous producers have embraced high pressure processing (HPP), a non-thermal pasteurization method in which the bottled product is pressurized in a cold water chamber in order to extend shelf life by killing harmful pathogens and inhibiting bacterial growth without affecting the product’s flavor profile.
Yet that began to change in last November, when Harmless Harvest, an early adopter of HPP, received a letter from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warning the company of concerns over the safety of processing methods used at the company’s Thailand production facility. Specifically, the letter stated that “Spores of Clostridium botulinum have demonstrated the ability to germinate and grow in low acid juices (such as coconut juice), producing toxin.”
Spurred forward by both safety concerns and the development of new technologies, some coconut water brands, led by Harmless Harvest itself, have recently begun exploring alternatives to HPP.
In March, the brand announced it was switching from HPP to a proprietary multi-step micro filtration system. In an interview with BevNET at the time, CEO Giannella Alvarez said that while the brand had been exploring alternative processing technologies for a long time, the FDA’s letter had accelerated their interest in making a change.
Speaking with BevNET last week, roughly seven months since implementing the new process, Alvarez said the transition has allowed Harmless Harvest to eliminate inconsistencies in the production process and increase shelf life from 45 days to 75.
“It has been a transformative move for our company because it has allowed us to have a much more predictable process,” said Alvarez. “Before, with such a short self life, we may not have been able to predict the supply chain and how long it would take to go from one warehouse to another and predict the demand. From a supply chain point of view, it has allowed us to be a lot more efficient.”
Alvarez said the new process has helped address inventory issues, allowing the company to consistently meet retailer demand, which in turn strengthened those partnerships. Keeping with the overall theme of reliability, she added that the new process has decreased waste. While year-end results remain to be seen, Alvarez also said the brand was producing more volume.
Yet outside of improvements in the production cycle, Alvarez argues, the differences in the product from HPP appear negligible. Alvarez said the new micro filtration process has not altered the taste of Harmless Harvest coconut water, nor has it had a significant impact on overall costs.
In March, All Market, the owner of Vita Coco, unveiled Coco Community, a line of organic and fair trade coconut water using a coconut variety similar to Harmless Harvest’s, but that uses a ultra high temperature (UHT) flash pasteurization process instead of HPP. In some ways, the new brand is a blow in favor of coconut terroir rather than processing as a key to flavor, as the UHT process, which provides a product shelf life of up to six months, is the same pasteurization method that All Market has been using since 2004. Arthur Gallego, Global Director for Corporate Communications at Vita Coco, said in an e-mail to BevNET that the brand’s primary concern in choosing a processing method was food safety.
“Coco Community stands behind thermal processing as the optimal production method to produce our coconut water,” said Gallego. “Some smaller brands have marketed their coconut water as ‘raw’ or have continued to use HPP but to grow their brands and remain compliant with regulatory agency and food safety requirements, they may have to explore thermal processing as well.”
When asked specifically why Coco Community preferred its current process to HPP, Gallego wrote, “We chose to use UHT flash pasteurization for Coco Community because it is the ideal processing method to preserve authentic flavor, nutrients and still provide a very high level of food safety.”
Regardless of which processing method they favor, brands seem to agree on one issue: consumers are considerably less interested in the technical aspects of production than they are in the quality and taste of the beverage itself. No major coconut water brand explicitly mentions high pressure processing on its packaging.
“We think there is a lot of convoluted, confusing messaging out there and people just want to know that you do not add anything unnecessary to your products,” said Tamara Arbib, CEO of UK-based Rebel Kitchen, which acquired raw coconut water brand Unoco earlier this year. In September, Rebel unveiled an organic HPP coconut water at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore.
“We think the question over whether to HPP or not is a debate that has been created by some big brands trying to battle out who has more market share and consumers are really just interested in getting the best tasting, cleanest product possible,” Arbib said.
However, recent tests commissioned by HPP equipment manufacturer Avure and completed by the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology suggest the issue isn’t settled quite yet. The study investigated “the potential for spores to germinate, grow and produce toxin by proteolytic and non-proteolytic C. botulinum in fresh coconut water (filtered and unfiltered) treated with HPP” and stored for 45 days. The results were negative.
That may be so, but manufacturers still seem hesitant to embrace the risk again. Joyce Longfield, an applications and regulatory specialist for HPP equipment manufacturer Hiperbaric, told BevNET that, despite being approved by food safety inspectors in California, a micro filtration system like the one used by Harmless Harvest was still questionable in its efficacy.
The overriding issue and source of confusion, both on scientific and political levels, is C. botulinum. FDA guidelines dictate that a 12-log reduction in C. botulinum levels is required to completely eliminate the spore in shelf-stable, non-refrigerated products. Micro filtration, flash pasteurization and HPP each only provide a 5-log reduction in spores, requiring product to be both distributed and stored at cold temperatures to inhibit germination. Therefore, Harmless Harvest, Coco Community and Rebel Kitchen all contain some level of C. botulinum, but maintaining cold temperatures during transportation and the existence of competing bacteria prevent spores from growing.
“If you are going to use micro filtration technology, you have to present data to inspector and have them approve it,” said Longfield. “[Harmless Harvest] presented it to their inspector in California, and the inspector approved it. Does that mean that is an acceptable way to go? That’s highly questionable. In conversations with experts in that field, they’ve made it abundantly clear as to why the FDA has never approved micro filtration as a method for controlling C. botulinum spores, which is because you can’t guarantee all the time that you eliminate 100 percent of the spores.”
Longfield added that an accepted log reduction for refrigerated products would be scientifically redundant because cold temperatures should prevent germination and growth of spores.
At Hiperbaric, Longfield has helped launch the “Cold Pressure Verified” program, a consumer education initiative in which participating companies, upon approval of submitted data and the completion of a third-party safety audit, will be allowed to use a Cold Pressure Verified seal on product labeling. She said the idea was to help guide the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture on how technology should be viewed from a food safety perspective, and not to advocate for a particular method over another.
“I’m not going to tell anyone to use HPP just because,” said Longfield. “If HPP doesn’t add value to your product, it’s not a good business decision. If it is going to put your company at risk because of food safety, it’s not a good business decision.
On the retail side, Seattle-based independent broker Craig Decker said he has observed retailers becoming more receptive to HPP and similarly processed beverages in recent years.
“I haven’t heard from any retailers whether they are more or less resistant to any particular product because of the technology used,” said Decker. “There’s always been an assumption that it was safe. There hasn’t been an issue with safety.”
Decker said that shelf life and logistical costs related to shipping are driving retailer decisions on HPP beverages, rather than technology. He said that if sales were strong, that would likely offset any overhead expenses.
“I don’t think retailers are going out there to manufacturing trade shows and looking for this technology,” Decker said. “It is relevant to them as much as it provides dollar signs. If there’s related growth in percentage of sales, then it’s a big deal.”