Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) is exploring ways to produce tasty prepared meals that do not need refrigeration. The cutting-edge food technology would be a major step forward for the company. The dishes could be offered quite cheaply compared with take-out from a restaurant.
The food-prep technology is known as microwave assisted thermal sterilization, or MATS. MATS technology was first developed more than a decade ago to improve food quality for soldiers in combat. The technology was further developed by researchers at Washington State University. The university became the research hub for MATS and received U.S. funding for the research.
The tech is being brought to market by Denver-based 915 Labs, a venture-backed startup. The company, formed in 2014, has licensed the original patents from the university. 915 Labs’ MATS dishes are now pending U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The company has also sold machines to the Australian government and to food companies in Asia.
Amazon invited the startup to Seattle after learning about MATS technology last year. In March, Amazon joined the university’s researchers and other companies in Seattle for the initial meeting of the Industrial Microwave Alliance. According to a university news release, the group’s mission is to “accelerate technology transfer of microwave-based food safety.”
According to 915 Labs, the dishes retain their natural flavor and texture. To make the meal at home, sealed packages of food are placed in pressurized water and heated in the microwave for several minutes. If Amazon decides to go ahead with the venture, it could launch as early as next year.
Amazon could distribute the dishes on a large scale, as the dishes would be easy to stockpile and ship as they do not require refrigeration. Because the meals can sit on a shelf for up to a year, warehousing and transportation needs would be far less complex. The meals could also complement Amazon’s planned $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods Market Inc.
Amazon is seeking a bigger piece of the $700 billion U.S. grocery business. The company’s AmazonFresh service has been delivering groceries to customers’ homes for a decade. The company has also filed for a trademark for cook-it-yourself meal-kits and Amazon’s checkout-free convenience store is in the test stage. The retailer has already planned to sell ready-to-eat dishes such as beef stew and a vegetable frittata as soon as next year.