Olive oil, chorizo, sherry, fine cheeses, and traditional tapas have earned Spain a worldwide reputation for gustatory delights. Spanish companies have also achieved international recognition for the quality of their agriculture machinery, food processing, and packaging, which is sold to customers in hundreds of countries that represent nearly every major market around the world. In southern Spain, the sun shines nearly all year long, providing energy for its wealth of crops, which have made the region a breadbasket not just for Spain, but for much of the rest of Europe. In 2010, Spain exported more than 9.4 million tons of fruits and vegetables. Food and wine have long been a source of national pride here, and a major attraction for the more than 70 million tourists who visit every year. "Then those tourists go home, and they want to continue consuming the olive oil, the wine, the oranges that they ate in Spain," observes Jaime Hernani, general director of AGEX, the Spanish association for food production machinery. This has stimulated a boom in the export of not only Spanish products, but Spanish know-how in irrigation, cultivation, and cleaning, separating, processing, and packaging those agricultural products. Spanish companies that manufacture machinery for food production, he adds, have been selling their advanced technology throughout Europe, North America, and Asia for more than two decades.
FAST, SAFE FOOD PROCESSING
Cured meat has been around at least since the time of the Romans, who ground fresh meat, salted it, and infused it with spices; fermented it to fuse the mass together; then allowed the meat to hang and dry for two to three months. The final products, such as salami, chorizo, and dry-cured sausage, are still popular today.
Josep Lagares, CEO of Girona's Metalquimia, working with Institute of Agricultural Research and Technology (IRTA) general manager Josep Maria Montfort, believed it was time for a change. Instead of a drying period that stretches out over several months, "We have reinvented this process to be able to dry these products in 20 to 50 minutes," says Lagares.
Metalquimia's innovation was to slice the meat before curing it, then send it through a machine that tweaks the humidity and temperature of the air inside to create the perfect curing conditions. The result: identical slices of cured meat. Its first industrial-scale machine, which can process 800 pounds of meat per hour, has been installed on the premises of the company's local partner, Casa de Mon.
Lagares sees endless opportunities for this machine. "For instance, [typically] if you want to try a new product in dry cured meat, you have to wait for months to see the results. With Metalquimia's [machine], you have the results in one day," he explains, adding that this technology will allow users to cure salt-free meat products, impossible with traditional techniques. And that's not the only benefit: Lagares points out that the space needed for meat drying can be reduced significantly, while a company can avoid having excess stock drying for months. This cure uses about 30 percent less energy than what many environments require to maintain the ideal temperature and humidity for long-term curing.
A focus on storage inspired Burgos-based NC Hyperbaric, whose technology improves the shelf life of minimally processed foods. In fact, according to marketing director Francisco Purroy, the company's continued dramatic growth can be attributed to two international movements. "There's a consumer trend towards foods and products that can be labeled as natural, minimally processed with no preservatives," points out Purroy. "At the same time, there's concern about [food-borne pathogens such as] listeria and salmonella."
NC Hyperbaric makes machinery that can kill pathogens in food without high temperatures, relying instead on extraordinarily high levels of water pressure to shatter bacteria's normal functions and kill them. The company was one of the first in the world to bring this technology to an industrial scale for the food industry. In an NC Hyperbaric machine, packages of food are placed in a plastic chamber inside a steel vat. Water fills the vat beyond the volume of what a chamber of that size is able to hold. This increases the pressure just as if the package had been dropped deep into the ocean. While the high pressure kills microorganisms, the process leaves nutrients and taste alone.
This process allows minimally processed foods to enjoy a stable shelf life with less salt and no additives, says Purroy. NC Hyperbaric's newest and largest machine can process more than two tons of food per hour.