When was the last time you had cold pressed juice or a fresh smoothie served by a robot?
Given the fast-paced developments in technology, it should be no surprise that robots that serve such treats are already available, currently at eight sites in Los Angeles, Calif., with eight more to be added in the area by May 30 all at middle schools, retail shops, and corporate cafes.
Meet JuiceBot, a Los Angeles firm that designs and manufactures the JuiceBot, which the company claims is the world’s first robotic juice dispenser.
Introduced in April 2015, the first commercial JuiceBot hit the scene in San Francisco, according to Kamal Mohamed, JuiceBot’s CEO.
“San Francisco is the Mecca for both hardware and software so it was a good place for us to Beta test our product, get feedback, raise capital, and pivot,” Mohamed relates. “We found Los Angeles better to try building the distribution model because we were closer to fresh produce farms and the layout of the city gave us a good challenge to understand how we would manage our deliveries.”
The JuiceBot dispenser concept is the brainchild of Mohamed and his company co-founders, Loring “L. J.” Stead and Eric Ploeger. Mohamed came up with the idea as a project for their business class at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. The trio came together to make it a reality and started developing the vending machine in 2012.
“Our mission is to make getting 100 percent raw, organic smoothies and cold pressed juices as convenient as getting soda from a vending machine,” Mohamed relates. “Our goal is to work with cities, universities, hospitals, airports, middle schools, and so on to reach our mission.”
Following Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points guidelines for retail establishments, JuiceBot prepares fresh juice daily at a commercial kitchen in Los Angeles. All kitchen managers are ServSafe certified. The facility is subject to food safety inspections by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“Currently four employees work in the kitchen, but that will increase as we place more JuiceBots in the field,” Mohamed says. “We have two to three delivery personnel to ensure the machines are restocked, cleaned, and running efficiently. We also employ technicians and engineers to troubleshoot issues that may come up with the technology.”
The juices are cold pressed and immediately chilled in 5-gallon stainless-steel tanks, which Mohamed says protects the products from oxidation caused by light. All the juices and smoothies are placed in the JuiceBot dispensers within 24 to 48 hours after preparation. The JuiceBots maintain the products at approximately 38 degrees Fahrenheit, with a range of 35 degrees to 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
After a customer selects a juice or smoothie by pressing a button, the JuiceBot does the rest, Mohamed says. A biodegradable cup is automatically placed into the dispensing compartment with a robotic arm that sets it under a nozzle for dispensing.
Each JuiceBot holds four different chilled juices or smoothies, which vary with the seasons, all made with certified organic ingredients. Options include a 7-ounce serving, called a “mini” and an 11-ounce “biggie.”
Product examples include what’s called expert greens juice, that consists of green vegetables like kale, spinach, and cucumbers, plus basil and lemon. Epic smoothie includes avocados, bananas, kale, spinach, apples, and oat milk. Strawberry fields showcases strawberries, of course, along with bananas, cashews, and oat milk. The combination of apple, lemon, and ginger is known by its initials, ALG. Roots features beets, while citrus includes lemon, along with pineapple, carrot, and turmeric. Watermelon-cucumber-mint comes available when watermelon is in season.
Mohamed says the JuiceBot offers the capability for customers to select a combination of juices or smoothies in one serving.
The JuiceBot’s robotic capabilities include automatic shut off for temperature control, Mohamed notes. And it has the ability to be monitored remotely.
“There is even a button that customers can click on for live help,” Mohamed adds. “We maintain a customer service call center at our office in downtown Los Angeles.”
Cold pressed juice has a typical shelf life of three to five days when it’s fresh and unpasteurized, Mohamed says. “We replace our product every 48 hours for optimum nutrients and freshness,” he relates.
According to Mohamed, the JuiceBot is the only device approved for unpasteurized beverages to be dispensed through an unattended retail format under California legislation and the National Automatic Merchandising Association, an organization that certifies vending machines under FDA code standards.
CANARY Pathogen Detection
To help ensure the safety of its products, JuiceBot utilizes a technology called CANARY, which stands for Cellular Analysis and Notification of Antigen Risks and Yields. CANARY is available commercially through PathSensors, Inc., Baltimore, Md., a biotech company that creates pathogen detection instruments.
“CANARY is a cell-based biosensor technology that delivers rapid detection of pathogens at high levels of sensitivity and specificity,” says Ted Olsen, PathSensors president. “CANARY incorporates pathogen-specific antibodies expressed on the biosensor surface which, in the presence of a pathogen, trigger an intracellular calcium release that, in turn, activates bioluminescent proteins whose light output can be measured and analyzed. CANARY technology detects down to 1 colony forming unit of target pathogens in less than five minutes.”
For JuiceBot, CANARY is delivered through PathSensors’s Zephyr Pathogen Identifier. The Zephyr kit includes a touch screen laptop complete with the CANARY detection technology, bench mount box, luminometer, centrifuge, and barcode scanner.
“The Zephyr platform is best suited for users who test lower volumes of samples, less than 40 tests per day,” Olsen relates. “Results are available in less than five minutes, with PCR (polymerase chain reaction) levels of sensitivity and specificity.”
According to Olsen, PathSensors holds the exclusive license to CANARY technology from MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Lexington, Mass.
“CANARY was originally created as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract to test for anthrax extremely quickly and rapidly following the 2001 anthrax attacks,” Olsen relates. “Now we’ve expanded to work not only in the biodefense sector to test for pathogens like anthrax, ricin, small pox, etc. for different agencies, including the Department of Defense, but also to work in the agriculture and food safety industries. To that end, the technology is capable of detecting foodborne pathogens, including Listeria, Salmonella, and Campylobacter.
“With fresh juices, Listeria and other pathogens are a particular concern,” Olsen continues. “Since the juice market is one of the most competitive segments of the beverage industry, and since juice is only growing in popularity, safe kitchen practices and food testing have never been as important as they are right now. As players like JuiceBot continue to become more and more innovative, we believe CANARY technology for rapid pathogen detection is a viable tool that can help them stay on the cutting edge of food safety.”
“The PathSensors system helps verify that our current food safety inspections, logs, and process of critical control points are working together,” Mohamed says. “It’s our last line of defense and a great verification tool for specific pathogens that we deal with in the fresh raw food beverage industry.”
A Hot Cold Juice Trend
Functional beverages, those marketed with natural health benefits from their ingredients, along with minimum fortification, are arguably one of the hottest trends in the industry, according to food scientist Alvin Lee, PhD, director of the Center for Processing Innovation at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH), Chicago, Ill.
“In recent years, the functional beverage category has shown an average annual growth rate of 20 percent in the U.S. and Europe,” Dr. Lee points out. “One of the top five trends for the functional juice sector is cold pressed juice.”
Cold pressed juice is typically made using a hydraulic press, compared with juices extracted using centrifugal presses.
High pressure processing (HPP), which employs pressure without heat, is a technique often used for juice, Dr. Lee says, noting that the primary advantages of HPP over thermal processing are the minimal chemical and physical effects exerted on most foods while imparting a microbial kill step.
“With fruit juices, HPP significantly reduces the number of spoilage microorganisms such as yeasts and molds, and pathogens like Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella spp. and Listeria monocytogenes,” Dr. Lee relates.
“The finished juices give consumers the sensory perception of ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’ products, while they meet consumer demands for fresh, healthy, and great-tasting safe foods,” he notes. “The refrigerated shelf life of such products can be up to 30 days or longer, and they have superior sensory quality compared with those prepared in a conventional manner.”
HPP treated juices typically produce darker greens for vegetables and redder reds for fruits that the consumer perceives to be healthier, Dr. Lee adds.
“HPP juices, often processed without addition of additives, preservatives or sugar, usually command premium prices compared to traditional heat processed juices,” Dr. Lee continues. “The U.S. is the largest market for HPP juices, followed by the U.K., Germany, France, and Switzerland.”
HPP-Treated Juices Research Project
Dr. Lee is the director of a landmark research project that is addressing the impact of juice characteristics on pathogen inactivation by HPP. Titled “Enhancing the Safety of High Pressure Processed Juices,” the work is well underway, courtesy of a $258,253 grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture that runs from June 2017 to May 2020.
The IFSH’s Kathiravan Krishnamurthy, PhD, is co-director of the project. Collaborators include Nathan Anderson, PhD, and Glenn Black, PhD, representing FDA’s Division of Food Processing Science and Technology, Yinqing Ma, PhD, from FDA’s Division of Plant Products and Beverages, and IIT IFSH PhD candidate Catherine Rolfe.
In explaining the project, Dr. Lee says HPP-treated juices are required by the FDA Juice HACCP regulations to demonstrate a 5-log reduction of colony forming units per milliliter of the pertinent organism in the juice. “Even though HPP-treated juices are now available at retail, there is currently no consensus amongst industry, academia, and government on a ‘standardized’ validation protocol for juices to be treated by HPP,” he relates.
According to Dr. Lee, it appears there is no common approach to preparing bacterial strains for validation and challenge studies, no consensus on the HPP parameters required for treatment of the juices and no common approach on how shelf life studies are conducted.
“Our project seeks to develop coordinated industry and regulatory science-based consensus from the generated data and develop guidance on how validation should be conducted for HPP-treated juices,” he says.
Safe Harbor in Development
Dr. Lee elaborates that the project aims to develop a safe harbor, which scientists define as a recognized procedure that can be employed without further validation studies and approved as delivering a safe product; and when implemented in industry, can be assured that the foodborne hazards are controlled during production and delivery of a safe product to consumers.
“The development of the safe harbor concept will allow stakeholders, including regulators, to better understand HPP technology and thus develop regulations based on sound science and provide quicker turn-arounds for validation approvals,” Dr. Lee points out. “Our project will also provide guidance for industry laboratories or academia evaluating the microbiological safety of HPP-treated juices to follow a reliable protocol to quickly detect pathogens and easily assess microbiological safety with confidence.”
To that end, Dr. Lee and his team are: 1) screening bacterial isolates for HPP resistance, selecting final sets of bacterial isolates for validation studies and quantifying the effect of juice matrices on bacterial inactivation; 2) defining HPP parameters that affect inactivation of selected bacterial isolates, 3) determining the impact of recovery procedures on enrichment of target bacterial isolates, 4) defining a protocol for shelf life analysis of HPP treated juices; and 5) developing and disseminate a guidance document for the HPP treated juices.
Due to FDA’s requirement to validate the 5-log reduction, microbial challenge testing is often conducted with strains of E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella spp., and L. monocytogenes, Dr. Lee notes. “However, bacterial strain sensitivity to pressure, microbiological recovery methods post-HPP, and HPP conditions can impact validation outcomes,” he relates. “While most pathogens are inactivated by HPP, defining the specifics can provide consistency in helping regulators evaluate validation reports, set precedence on how the juice industry conduct HPP validation, and allow manufacturers to produce safe juices to consumers.”
Juice: A Multibillion Dollar Industry
U.S. retail sales of 100 percent fruit juice reached $18.2 billion in 2018 and fruit drinks achieved $8.2 billion in retail sales, for a total of $26.4 billion, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. (BMC), New York, N.Y.
The 2018 average U.S. retail price per gallon of 100 percent juice was $11.52, while fruit drinks averaged $6.08 per gallon, BMC reports.
Of all fruit juices and drinks sold at retail in 2018, 100 percent fruit juice accounted for 68.93 percent of U.S. sales, while fruit drinks came in at 31.07 percent, BMC notes.—L.L.L.