Urban Food Chains takes a look at four major phases that our food goes through before it gets anywhere near anybody's plate.
Click this image to read the overview.
Drought in Spain
Olive trees can live for centuries, but at the moment industries that depend on olive trees are struggling. Click this image to read about olive oil.
This photograph of Spain was taken in May by a NASA satellite. Spain Browned by Drought The inset relief was carved in marble in 1982 by the laic sculptor, Aristeidis Metallinos.and was photographed by Sidadd. It is licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) and is available from Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pressing_the_farmer%27s_olive_oil.JPG
A large and rambling topic, production covers the slaughter of livestock, as well as assembling and processing food products, including meat and fish. Click this image to get a list of topics linked to production.
Food travels thousands of miles on its way through the global economy. For some products, the journey determines their history and form: for others, the starting point of the journey defines the commercial positioning of a whole product family, such as protected geographical indications. Click this image to sit in on the journey.
Buying and selling food is not without its surprises, not all of them pleasant. Click this image to find related articles.
Hundreds of acres of cultivable farmland will be cleared to make way for houses as far as the eye can see. In the coming months, Mid Sussex District Council will hear applications from developers wanting to build 1500 houses between the villages of Ansty and Cuckfield. As well as residential properties, there will be shops and amenities in addition to a headline-grabbing 30% allocation of social housing. Whether or not the developments will ever release as much as 30% for social housing remains to be seen, but it needs to be there at the outset..
This major development plan faces problems, however. To begin with the new homes will generate additional demand for water in a part of the world where demand for water is already comparabl;e to desert regions.The loss of 250 acres of farmland is nothing short of disastrous: the UK cannot afford to throw away productive land.
Over the past two years, climate change and rising energy costs have been the two biggest sources of food price rises. Analysis by The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) suggests that even if energy costs ease, climate change will carry on pushing up food prices in years to come. With hundreds of acres of UK farmland covered with floodwater as I write, the water levels will lead to lost crops, forcing farmers to write off produce that would otherwise have counted towards the UK’s economic activity. Replacements will be required for the lost stock, which may need to be imported,
Climate change cost UK consumers an extra GBP 171 in 2022, rising to GBP 192 this year. While the ECIU expects energy price rise to ease in years to come, the think tank still reckons that households have had to find just over GBP 600 for environment-related price drivers in 2022 and 2023. Dr Tim Lloyd, at Bournemouth University, argues that energy pricing is behind 59% of all UK food price rises. All over the world, drought and heatwaves are affecting basic commodities such as olive oil, canned tomatoes, sugar and rice. Food prices are rising everywhere: this is inevitable, given the way food is traded.
Fast forward to 2024 and UK voters go to the polls. Next year, six years later than promised, the UK government is promising to phase in the plant and animal checks that were a part of the EU border control infrastructure. This inspection activity does not come cheap and will be added on to the cost of importing food. Just when consumers thought things were settling down, they can look forward to an unexpected surge in the cost of imported food.
One of the most frequent arguments trotted out for Brexit was that it was time to take back control of international borders. The ‘take back control’ mantra was somehow an irrefutable justification when all else fails. It remains more of a fig leaf than a reasoned argument.
Having regained third country status to make this dream come true, the UK has obtusely dragged its feet over implementing the veterinary aspects of border control. The simple truth is that the commitments which come with international borders were not in fact a top priority for British politicians. There has been little political appetite to ensure full compliance with post-Brexit structures from day one, possibly because the necessary skill sets are in short supply.
The declaration of a 10km Temporary Control Area for blue tongue around a dairy farm in Kent came as a wake-up call the UK government. It was as if Westminster was caught out taking a calculated risk that there might not be any significant animal health issues. There may not be a serious risk of the notifiable disease spreading, the real problem is the political fallout from gaps in the UK’s veterinary provision under international animal health treaties.
This autumn has seen the implem entation of the first phase of the UK government’s Target Operating Model (TOM), marking greater reliance on digitised documentation and a move away from visual inspections. If all goes according to plan, the next twelve months will see the implementation of sanitary inspections by customs staff. The laboratory and testing fees will be charged to the owners of the goods concerned,. The additional costs will be significant but randomised. The testing will have an inflationary effect, but this will neither be directly attruibutable nor constant. It will b e impossible to predict reliably, but will generate resentment.
A recurring theme in Chris Packham’s series Earth is the timely coincidences that came with planetary events. Having just re-watched the third of the five part series, it is striking how the twin-track development of what later evolved into plants depended on some shared resources with what later became fungi. The proto-fungi extracted minerals from bare rock that nourished evolving plants, while the early plants gave glucose to their fungal partners. Without this quantum step in evolution, we would not exist today.
Town dwellers in Japan have faced a rising tide of attacks from black bears, which are driven by a lack of food to venture into what were previously uncontested spaces. A story in The Guardian puts the number of casualties since April at 158 as well as two lost lives. Unlike the United States, where black bears are a constant risk for human misadventure, there is strong evidence to suggest that the bears are being driven by disruption to their normal food supplies rather than selecting centres of human activity as easy pickings for a quick meal.
Human fatalities arising from attacks by bears have figured in Japanese history for years. The museum reconstruction of the Sankebetsu episode on Hokkaido in the early twentieth century is pictured here. It came about after human incursions into virgin jungle. A conflict of interest with the formerly unchallenged top species was resolved on human terms. The current spate of bear attacks has broken a previous record high recorded in 2020, with many incidents being logged in Honshu, the largest island in Japan.
Unofficial estimates of Japan’s bear population range up at 44,000, nearly three times the 15,000 recorded officially in 2012. Without a corresponding increase in territory and food sources, there is no avoiding a state of constant conflict between species.
Autoclave and retort are two names for pressure cooking vessels used in food manufacturing to sterilise canned food and in later versions by engineering firms to cure rubber tyres. The starting point was known as a steam digester, attributed to French scientist Denis Papin, in 1679.
The hazards of working with steam under pressure very quickly became apparent and Papin devised a safety valve to mitigate the risk of explosion, leading many to refer to it as the Papin digester. It was called a digester because it was generally used to apply heat and pressure to bones, leaving cooked bones soft and friable for bonemeal. Other processes were developed for this piece of equipment, from which Papin developed a prototype steam engine. This was subsequently developed into the static steam engines built by Thomas Newcomen.
Chevalier-Appert, a nephew of Nicolas, invented the first reliable pressure gauge for retorts and autoclaves in 1852. This was an essential accessory to prevent explosions and standardise the process. Early retorts comprised a steel vessel, with a metal basket to hold filled bottles or cans. Later versions were fitted with systems that allowed product to be rotated as it cooked, reducing the cooking time. To start a cooking cycle, the vessel is loaded and the door closed. Steam is brought into the cooking chamber and the contents cooked for the required time at the necessary temperature. Once cooked, the steam was turned off and the retort allowed to cool.
A cooking cycle can last for hours, not finishing until the centre of the load had been subjected to a predetermined temperature and for a set period of time. The result is overcooked product on the outside to be sure that the centre cooked properly. Later refinements include automated loading, a key advance to raising throughput.
The next milestone, in the late twentieth century, was reached by Richard Walden, a process engineer working for Carnaud-Metalbox. Convinced that it was time to make retorts more efficient, he devised what is now referred to as the Shaka retort, which shakes its load backwards and forwards, driven by a reciprocating actuator at speeds of more than 100 cycles per minute.
It was clear from the outset that when the prototype reached a certain speed, the load underwent a quantum cooking effect, a “sonic boom” for food, so to speak. Depending on the consistency of the product, cooking time went down dramatically. Further details are available here: https://shakaprocess.wordpress.com/what-is-the-shaka-process/
Walden fixed the amplitude on the prototype at around 150mm and varied the speed or rpm on reciprocating arm. For any given product viscosity, Walden could identify a threshold at which a quantum heat transfer took place in the cooking vessel. Further increases in the rpm had no significant effect on cooking times.
Shaka is an undisputed milestone achievement, but has yet to persuade mainstream food manufacturers to scale down their investments in energy-hungry retort lines. The technology has been licensed to two retort manufacturers, Steriflow in France and Allpax in the USA. Prototype, pilot and production models are all available. Although the Shaka units are smaller than their conventional counterparts, they can achieve the same throughput with multiple shorter cooking cycles.
UK farmers exporting to Europe have faced the full cost of third country status from the start, while EU exporters of animal products to the UK have effectively had a free ride in the absence of routine food safety checks on animal products arriving in the UK.
“For the past three years, our farmers have faced the full reach of EU controls on our exports while the EU has enjoyed continued easy access to the UK marketplace,” NFU president Minette Batters told Urban Food Chains. “This is not just an issue for competitiveness, with British farmers faced with additional costs and paperwork, but also for our nation’s biosecurity.”
“Proportionate and effective controls are necessary if we are to prevent outbreaks of pests and diseases that threaten human, animal and plant health, the safety, quality and biosecurity of our food products and the confidence of our trading partners.”
“It is vital that the government uses the latest delay wisely to raise awareness among EU exporters and to address the concerns expressed by many in the supply chain. This includes horticulture growers who continue to see the shift of controls away from their business premises to border control posts as a major point of jeopardy, with unknown costs and heightened biosecurity risks. This time should also be used to minimise unnecessary delays at the border once the new system is finally up and running.”
The UK is at last preparing to complete the Brexit process. For two years randomised routine physical checks on imported animal products have not been carried out. In 2024, ports with Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) will start to undertake physical inspections. These will be comparable to those which have been carried out routinely at European BIPs from day one.
Checks on the documentation for inbound goods, however, is carried at the border. For inbound consignments of animal products, this is done at a BIP, for which an appointment is made. The resources and staff for these checks are charged to the owner* of the goods and amount to just under a tenner a tonne. The cost of physical checks will reflect the degree of sophistication involved, and will routinely come to hundreds of pounds.
The money charged for all this checking is not customs duty but it will be counted towards the customs valuation, an aggregate figure upon which 20% import VAT is due. Local authorities will collect the product checking revenue, HMRC will bank the VAT. Bringing in a full regime of product checking will add significantly to the cost of putting food on the market.
The UK government estimates that the additional fees for product checking and related services will add GBP 330 million a year across all imports from EU. The UK government claims that the impact on food and drink imported from the EU “… will not be significant.” This is a moot point.
Checking the documents for a consignment of animal products in normal office hours would cost GBP 196 at the BIP in East Midlands airport. A further GBP 64 would be charged for goods listed on additional veterinary certificates appearing on the same header document. Costs rise for out of hours inspections, for which prices are quoted on application. Bear in mind, however, that air freight consignments will be smaller than loads packed in containers.
Third country goods going into the EU face physical checks determined by the sampling rate fixed by the customs service. Traders shipping goods into the EU can earn a reduction in the frequency of physical checks, by complying with EU requirements. Think of it as time off for good behaviour. As a new third country, the UK has faced 100% sampling. UK exporters have been charged accordingly, unlike traders shipping to the UK.
*Ownership of goods in transit is a moveable feast. It is often transferred directly from the seller to the buyer when the goods are loaded on to a ship, but since the buyer may not be the end user at this point, there are a number of alternative outcomes. The shipping line often takes ownership for the duration of the journey, since owners can be required to make snap decisions in the event of accidents or mishaps.
On Your Farm presenter Charlotte Smith and Archers’ actor Lucy Speed open the programme from the middle of Devon by explaining that they are looking for a farm but are surrounded by large sheds and outwardly industrial structures. Somewhere in this seemingly inappropriate setting, they are expecting to meet Andy Gray, a possible finalist for one of the programme’s annual awards.
Andy’s business bridges the gap between livestock farmers and end users of meat. He operates the large food grade cutting and packing lines that they saw on arrival. As well as selling dog food, he also farms 150 hectares of arable crops, as well as keeping a herd of deer and a herd of cattle. Other business activities in his eclectic business include a quarry for heritage building stone.
During the visit, the conversation turns to remedial best practice for soil and the new funding schemes for English farming, based on the provision of a public good such as healthy soil. Rothamstead soil scientist Andy Neil is on hand to discuss some of the vital detail. Charlotte Smith is impressed that Andy should have engaged a Rothamstead professional to measure the recovery of former arable fields. Andy, on the other hand is pragmatic: if he can’t quantify the improvements he is making on his land, he won’t get any government cash. Gotcha.