SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc is exploring a technology first developed for the U.S. military to produce tasty prepared meals that do not need refrigeration, as it looks for new ways to muscle into the $700 billion U.S. grocery business.
The world's biggest online retailer has discussed selling ready-to-eat dishes such as beef stew and a vegetable frittata as soon as next year, officials at the startup firm marketing the technology told Reuters.
The dishes would be easy to stockpile and ship because they do not require refrigeration and could be offered quite cheaply compared with take-out from a restaurant.
If the cutting-edge food technology comes to fruition, and Amazon implements it on a large scale, it would be a major step forward for the company as it looks to grab hold of more grocery customers shifting toward quick and easy meal options at home.
Delivering meals would build on the company's AmazonFresh service, which has been delivering groceries to customers' homes for a decade. It could also complement Amazon's planned $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market Inc and Amazon's checkout-free convenience store, which is in the test stage.
The pioneering food-prep tech, known as microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS, was developed by researchers at Washington State University, and is being brought to market by a venture-backed startup called 915 Labs, based in Denver.
The method involves placing sealed packages of food in pressurized water and heating them with microwaves for several minutes, according to 915 Labs.
Unlike traditional processing methods, where packages are in pressure cookers for up to an hour until both bacteria and nutrients are largely gone, the dishes retain their natural flavor and texture, the company said. They also can sit on a shelf for a year, which would make them suitable for Amazon's storage and delivery business model.
“They obviously see that this is a potential disruptor and an ability to get to a private brand uniqueness that they’re looking for,” said Greg Spragg, a former Wal-Mart Stores Inc executive and now head of a startup working with MATS technology. “They will test these products with their consumers, and get a sense of where they would go.”
Amazon declined to comment.
Spragg's company, Solve for Food, plans to acquire a MATS machine from 915 Labs that can make 1,800 packages an hour. The company aims to use the machine at a new food innovation center in northwest Arkansas, near the headquarters of Wal-Mart.
915 Labs also has an Arkansas connection: it is designing the beef stew and other dishes with a chef at the Bentonville-based Brightwater Center for the Study of Food.
Wal-Mart did not comment on whether it is looking into the technology…
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