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Tracking food safety with clean tech

Purfresh, an ozone-purification company, makes Intellipur to monitor quality and sources of trouble related to food or drinks en route to grocery store shelves.

FREMONT, Calif.--First it was tomatoes, and now it's jalapenos.

The recent warnings of salmonella outbreaks show the difficulty of tracing sources of food contamination in the United States. Federal authorities this week couldn't say for sure whether contaminated jalapenos were tainted in Mexico where they were grown, at the distribution center in Texas, or while en route to markets.

A California clean-tech company is hoping to take advantage of an otherwise unsavory situation. , a food and water ozone-purification company, makes software called Intellipur to monitor the quality of food and drinks as they move from harvesting or production to grocery store shelves. It also regulates food quality in storage or transit with the use of ozone--the three-atom molecule of pure oxygen.

David Cope, CEO of Purfresh, shows off Intellipur, a software system that helps food distributors track the quality of produce as it's shipped around the world. To the right of Cope is an example of the portable ozone generator that Purfresh makes to release ozone in minute amounts into cold storage units as produce travels. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

The logistics software has been around since December, but CEO David Cope said that Intellipur in transportation devices is the fastest growing piece of his company's business because of demand for tracking and quality controls for shipped food and water.

"It changes the macroeconomics of shipping--it provides traceability if someone gets ill," Cope said in an interview this week.

Lucky's Real Tomatoes, a customer of Purfresh's, recently saw demand soar for its produce after warnings were issued about the food-borne illness related to tomatoes, according to Cope. Lucky's uses Purfresh's ozone cold storage generator to kill bacteria and fungus on produce, and the software monitors the health of the tomatoes while stored or shipped.

To capitalize on this advantage, Purfresh launched in May a program called Quality by Purfresh, a seal for distributors that use the technology. It's a kind of "Intel Inside" marketing campaign.

Intellipur shows the air quality inside a shipping container in real time. Here it depicts shipping routes correlated to each container's temperature, oxygen levels, CO2 levels and humidity. Stefanie Olsen/CNET

The ozone factor
Food- and water-related products have become one of the growing segments of the clean-tech market. Organic produce sales are rising, and because organic produce can't be treated with chemicals, growers and retailers have started to invest in things like ozone purification and biopesticides to kill bugs and pests. Purfresh's systems are also used to disinfect a growing number of nonorganic foods and water products.

Based here in Fremont, Calif., the company--formerly called Novazone--has developed systems that kill fungi and other microorganisms on vegetables, fruit, and in bottled drinks without altering appearance or taste. It's chief agent for purification is ozone.

Purfresh's system, which resembles a still, essentially exploits the instability of ozone. Ordinary oxygen molecules consist of only two atoms. The third atom in ozone only stays attached until it can react with, or oxidize, another substance. If that substance is a bacteria cell or fungi, the atom will neutralize it. So Purfresh pipes ozone in minute amounts into water for purification, or sprays it as a gas over fruits and vegetables.

Because large concentrations of ozone can be harmful to people, sensors monitor the flow of ozone so that it stays within a minimal range of 100 to 300 parts per billion.

Inside Purfresh's new ozone generator, where the device converts air into ozone that will kill microbes and fungi in water. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

Purfresh makes a compact version of this system for cold storage units and shipping containers, which hold produce until its ready to go onto shelves. In the future, Purfresh expects to unveil a unit for the trucking industry because of all the food that goes to waste in transit. As much as 30 percent of the food shipped is affected by microbial decay, or spoilage, Cope said.

Smarter with software
Last year, Purfresh developed its Intellipur software to make its portable ozone generator systems smarter.

The software, layered inside a box snapped into a shipping container, monitors data from a sensor array that detects the container's air quality, humidity, CO2, and temperature. It also regulates ozone emitted into the air to keep produce fresh, and then transmits all of that data back to a central server at Purfresh. Via wireless communications, the system will also take actions to control temperature and humidity inside the container from external controls.

Then, with embedded GPS and satellite systems, the software can be used track kiwi fruit in shipping containers, for example, traveling from New Zealand via the Panama Canal to Northern Europe. So if someone fell ill along that path, the system's real-time reporting could trace where the problem occurred.

For the water bottling industry, Purfresh this week introduced a new, more compact ozone generator for small, private label bottlers. The new generator cabinet, at 24x24x11 inches, also includes the Intellipur software for remote real-time monitoring so that bottling companies could detect trouble in a shipping route.

Dansani, Aquafina, and Ethos already use Purfresh's system to disinfect their bottled waters. Colgate-Palmolive and others also use it to purify contact lens solution, toothpaste, and toilets.

The company, which employs 55 people in Fremont, has 340 customers in more than 22 countries. Last year, it raised $25 million in a Series C round of funding from Chilton Investment Company and its early investor Foundation Capital. Cope said he expects the company to reach profitability for all of its units by next year.

Sunscreen for produce

Next week, the company also plans to publicize its latest product line, Sun Shield for crops. By spraying a formula on crops like apples and corn, it acts like an SPF 45 to reduce so-called sun stress on produce grown in high temperature or high UV areas like Australia or Chile.

Purfresh's line of sun shade sprays for produce that are designed to prevent so-called solar stress and boost crop yields. Stefanie Olsen/CNET News

For the last two years, Purfresh has been selling a spray called Eclipse that helps protect produce from sun scald. But it plans to market a whole family of sun shade products, including a spray for organic produce.

The product is a powder made from multicrystalline calcium carbonate. When sprayed on wine grapes or apples, the formula has been shown to reduce losses from crops' overexposure to the sun.

"If you believe in food and water safety and not achieving that with nasty chemicals, this is a great market," said Cope.

Former CNET News reporter Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.