Airtight, hand-operated storage system catches on in Japan.

From its humble base in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo, Hagy Tech has set itself an ambitious goal: help the world preserve food and eliminate shortages.

This goal lies close to the heart of company president Tadashi Hagihara, who participated in the Apollo program to put a man on the moon. As a young man in postwar Japan, he experienced the devastating effects of hunger firsthand.

The solution his company has developed is an airtight container that keeps rice and other grains fresh for extended periods. Unlike typical vacuum sealers, which rely on electricity, Hagy Tech’s system uses a hand pump that is easy to operate but which creates an extremely high-vacuum environment.

These airtight rice containers are already being used in Japan and are now beginning to gain attention overseas.

The containers consist of a clear plastic bag with detachable pump. Rice, beans or cereal grains are placed inside the bag, and after just 15 seconds of pumping, the air is removed, creating a vacuum environment. The process requires little physical strength and no electricity. Since the pump also serves as the lid, the bag can be opened and closed repeatedly, restoring the vacuum each time. In Japan, Hagy Tech offers 1kg and 5kg bags for home use.

Easy does it

There are two main reasons it is so easy to create a vacuum inside the bags. One has to do with the structure of the pump, and the other with the nozzle that attaches to the pump and is firmly bonded to the bag. The pump has multiple built-in check valves, which prevent air that is being pumped out of the bag from flowing back in. The nozzle, meanwhile, blocks the entry of air and maintains the vacuum inside the bag. Both technologies are patented.

Hiroo Yamada of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute, who studies the preservation of tree seeds, explained how vacuum preservation works. “Seeds stop breathing and become dormant” in an airless environment, he said.

But although seeds stop breathing, they remain alive and will resume respiration when they again come into contact with the air.

When he was developing the basic technology for the airtight rice containers in around 2007, Hagihara asked the Saga Environmental Science Inspection Association to conduct tests on rice preservation.

Those tests showed that brown rice kept in Hagihara’s airtight container for six months at a temperature of 30 C changed little in terms of phosphorus, potassium, lipid and water content. Rice that started with 14.4 grams of water per 100 grams still had 13.0 grams at the end of the test, a very small loss for such a long time in storage.

“After nearly a year in storage, some of the brown rice kernels even sprouted,” Hagihara said.

By comparison, the same tests showed that brown rice kept in a paper bag had just 6.9 grams of water remaining after six months.

Hagy Tech’s manual pump even outperforms household electric vacuum sealers used to preserve perishable foods.

According to the company’s own tests, its pump can create a vacuum state of minus 0.095 megapascal, which is near the measurable limit for a vacuometer and beats the minus 0.08MPa of typical household sealers.

What’s more, electric-powered sealers use bags that are pressure-bonded closed and which must be cut open to use the contents, meaning they are not reusable. The bags used in the Hagy Tech system, moreover, are thicker, which helps to maintain a tighter seal.

Hagihara believes his company’s airtight rice containers will find a ready market in places like Africa and South Asia, where food security is a serious concern.

Seeking stability

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food security as physical and economic access to sufficiently safe and nutritious foods that meet dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

“The opportunity for food stability, which means always having adequate access to food, would be greatly increased if there were an inexpensive container that anyone could manually operate and if that container were available to everyone,” said Kazumasa Watanabe, vice director of the FAO Liaison Office in Japan.

“Preserving food by cooling or freezing requires equipment [such as refrigerators],” Hagihara said. “By just manually pumping out the air, our airtight containers can preserve foods and beverages for much longer periods of time and with no running costs. They would be easy to introduce even in developing countries.”

In Japan, Hagy Tech began test marketing its containers in home improvement stores in 2015. Last year, the product showed up in an annual rice catalog distributed in 24,000 post offices nationwide. The catalog price for the company’s 5kg container is 2,800 yen ($24.33), and orders for some 1,000 containers were placed in October alone, when the catalog first shipped.

Hagihara sees various ways of promoting his company’s containers. “If Japanese rice was exported in our containers, the rice would stay fresh longer and be regarded even more highly in overseas markets.”

Different needs

Hagy Tech already has some experience developing vacuum containers for use overseas.

In 2004, a contingent of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force was dispatched to Samawah, Iraq, to support the country’s reconstruction. Hagy Tech developed an airtight sterile water canteen for the troops and shipped 20,000 units to Iraq at the request of the Ministry of Defense (then called the Japan Defense Agency).

Temperatures in Samawah can exceed 50 C during the summer months. Not only do normal canteens heat up in this kind of environment, the water inside them quickly begins to stink as saliva naturally mixes with the water whenever a drink is taken.

Hagy Tech solved these problems by fashioning a canteen from a plastic bag with a check valve built into the cap. After filling the bag with water, the air is pushed out by squeezing the bag, creating a vacuum environment. Saliva will not enter the canteen even when water is sucked out through the cap, so the water does not go bad.

“In Japan, we don’t need to carry water around in an airtight container, but there are places in the world where vacuum containers may be a necessary part of life,” Hagihara said, reflecting on his experience with the SDF.

Interest in Hagy Tech’s airtight rice container, meanwhile, is growing. In December, a Japanese trading house approached the company to sound it out on the idea of marketing them overseas. The containers, the trading house said, would be perfect for storing rice in Southeast Asia, given the region’s hot, humid climate.

Hagy Tech has also been contacted by countries in Europe looking for ways to stockpile wheat flour. To meet this demand, Hagihara has begun developing a 300kg version of the containers.

But there are several issues to address before this container — or those of any other size — finds broad use overseas.

Right now, Hagy Tech outsources most of its production to business partners in Chiba Prefecture. Hagihara is the first to admit that it would be impossible to fill orders on the scale needed to meet a country’s stockpiling needs.

Sales and marketing also present major hurdles. The company currently sells most of its products through trading companies and makers of water containers. It would probably count on trading companies for its overseas sales networks and is considering working with the Japanese businesses that have already begun laying the groundwork for overseas sales of its airtight rice containers. Pricing is another factor. The 2,800 yen that Hagy charges in Japan for its 5kg containers poses a major hurdle to its use in impoverished countries.

Personal motivation

Hagihara was a young engineer when he participated in the Apollo program in the 1960s in the U.S. With his expertise in fluid dynamics as it relates to vacuums, he helped develop a device to prevent oxidation of the hydraulic fluid used for the hydraulic doors used on the Apollo 11 mission. After returning to Japan, Hagihara served as a technology consultant for some 10 Japanese companies and helped develop such devices as a highly successful filtration system for oil plants.

In 2001, at the age of 70, Hagihara established Hagy Tech with the hope of using his accumulated technological know-how to benefit society. In addition to rice containers, his company has also developed such products as packages for vacuum-storing beverages and dried foods, like shiitake mushrooms, hot peppers and seasonings. By the time his company celebrated its 15th anniversary, Hagihara had obtained more than 150 patents in 11 countries.

His current focus on food stems largely from his own experiences after the end of World War II, when Japan faced severe food shortages. Recalling how he had to eat such animals as frogs and snakes to survive, Hagihara summed up the hardship of those days: “Having nothing to eat is the most painful experience for a human being.”

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