NZ ozone technology takes off for apple treatment
Treating fungus and bacteria in apples is a tricky business, and at the packhouse level it is often tackled through the use of a bath with fungicides and pesticides; a process with the potential to rule out organic certification, or cut out certain markets altogether due to restrictions on some residues. A New Zealand company has sought to offer an alternative method that keeps both disease and chemical usage at bay, and that solution is ozone technology.
In a café in Santiago de Chile, OA-Global director Brendon Spencer explains in the most basic of terms how ozone technology works, and how its application could present a range of benefits for the global fruit industry.
"In a natural process, the sun's light hits two atoms of oxygen and cuts them into single atoms, which then combine with another oxygen atom to make ozone; the bulk turns back to oxygen but some ozone remains.
"What we've done is essentially the same but not using ultraviolet light. So why is this great when treating fruit and produce? When ozone comes into contact with a microorganism, the weakly bonded oxygen atom oxidizes the cell membrane, ultimately causing osmotic bursting and cell destruction, which simply put means it kills bacteria and fungus.
"The weak bond splits, leaving oxygen as a by-product, therefore leaving no residue - the secret is how to transport the ozone and apply it easily, but the units we've created are fairly small, affordable and easy to use."
He says initial trials with the technology with New Zealand's Apollo Apples in Hastings were successful, running the new unit in an apple bath and spray system.
"Ozone is applied to the water trough using the existing water as the vehicle to bring the apples up to the conveyor belt while they are being washed," Spencer says.
"Normally, fungicides and pesticides are mixed in the water to kill bacteria and fungus, amongst other things, and then the fruit go up a conveyor belt and through a series of rollers that turn the apples, and at the very end they're washed in a spray.
"Then those apples are dried, packaged and put into a cool store where we also have units that eliminate ethylene and keep bacteria and fungus to very low levels."
He says that in the process, the ozone attaches itself to any pathogens or microorganisms on the apple and kills them.
"We'e swabbed the apples at the end of the spray system, and they've got zero bacteria and zero fungus on them."
He says that when compared to the costs of using fungicides and pesticides in packhouse baths, the product pays for itself in about a year, depending on the size of the operation.
"OA-Global will sell a completed unit that can be attached to any current system, so there is not cost to the existing system apart from altering couplings to join our unit onto it. We’re not using anything other than the water that’s already in the system.
"Not only are Apollo going to continue with it, but but other major companies in New Zealand have stated they want one as well."
The company has also had its eye on the Chilean market for the last two years, which recently culminated in Spencer's move to the country's capital with his 13-year-old son. He doesn't speak much Spanish yet and asks potential Chilean business partners to please be patient with his New Zealand accent.
"We've met with a number of fruit producers in Chile with a number of products that are nearing the completion of their trials in New Zealand. The first product is the apple bath," he says.
"We’re serious about it and we believe it will help the Chilean fruit industry, so that’s why we’re here. The fact I've moved here shows we're very committed to this market.
"I understand when you come to a new country you’ve got to prove the technology, and it doesn’t really matter what’s happened in your home country. You've got to prove it here and get people to be comfortable with the products and comfortable with me. OA-Global is looking forward to working with the local fruit industry"
He adds OA-Global would be open to trials of the technology in other apple-growing regions around the world.