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.
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.
This week the UK delivered the world’s first fully digitally documented consignment of goods. Burnley engineering firm Fort Vale became the first UK exporter to put electronic documentation on an equal footing with paper forms. This was made possible by the Electronic Trade Documents Act (ETDA), which came into force on Wednesday. To be sure, the goods involved were not food products, but Urban Food Chains wanted to mark the occasion anyway. Here’s a link to the gov.uk statement.
Highly processed foods are a technical challenge for customs valuations, requiring standardisation and accuracy. In the EU the task of establishing a core element in the customs valuation is carried out by using a set of laboratory protocols to establish the precise proportions of dairy fats, dairy proteins and sugars.
The purpose of Meursing numbers is to provide a reliable way of calculating the duty on ingredients in highly-processed foods. The protocols cover the required procedures for measuring four ingredients: milk fat; milk protein; sucrose and invert sugars. These values are then read off a Meursing table, which has 32 rows for the possible combinations of the milk components and 19 columns for the sugars. The three figure codes in the tables are transferred to the customs documentation, preceded by a 7, flagging it as a special additional code.
Most third country exporters of biscuits and bakery goods face a lengthy documentation process. The UK, however, has not been required to use Meursing codes since April 2021. Not that this has stopped folk from feeling hard done by.
Irish dairy farmers are seeing huge falls in demand and output in the wake of Brexit. The Irish Creameries’ Suppliers Association ICMS this week revealed that this was an ongoing situation and not a passing phase. Not surprisingly, the ICMS has some very substantial members who between them exported more than 80,000 tonnes of block Cheddar a year to the UK. Allow 13 tonnes of milk to make a tonne of Cheddar and store it for a year or two at a creamery, and it adds up to a significant business commitment.
Those with long memories will remember former farm minister Liz Truss regaling the 2014 Tory party conference with a hatchet job on British cheese imports. Surprisingly little change from today’s outbursts, really. Shows how little she learnt at DEFRA.
In a few decades, once political sensitivities have healed, there may be a generation that seeks to make sense of the current chaos. Former public policy editor of the Financial Times, Peter Foster, has written a contemporaneous account of the poor policy making that has dogged the Brexit negotiations and beyond. What Went Wrong With Brexit is published by Canongate. Visitors to Google Books will also find a sample chapter and a download link for purchases.
Watch out for the marketing hype from Revo Foods in Vienna: the company launched a vegan salmon fillet last week and the product is printed on a food grade computer. Vegan it may be, salmon it cannot be, if it is vegan; and fillet it is not, since it is not cut from a larger piece with bone or skeletal structure. The product name follows in the ‘meat and two veg’ tradition of vegetarian foods that routinely borrow descriptions used for butchery products to reinforce their claim to a place at the table. This vegetarian meal product’s claim to fame is the world’s first computer-printed food. This poses more questions than it answers, not least over the use of butchery terms for plant products, which is a long-running discussion at the European Commission. Share your thoughts in the comments box.
(Added September 21) On reflection, the most probable end users will be long haul space missions. I struggle to imagine products like this being served up in classy Viennese restaurants, not least because of the fact that it is neither meat, nor fish, nor fowl. But this kind of delivery system would be a good for intrepid astronauts who fear nothing…
Identifying food is instinctive, most of the time. Getting it wrong can be worse than catastrophic, as this shocking CNN video makes clear. Seabirds in the middle of the Pacific are fishing plastic waste out of the ocean and, in some cases, feeding it to their chicks. Needless to say, both adult and chick alike die as a result.
The data is frightening and the phenomenon has been recorded since 2009. According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, millions of tonnes of plastic waste are finding their way into the planetary food chains and animal tissue in the form of microplastics. Ever smaller particles are turning up — notably in human tissue.