Coincidental good fortune

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.

Unbearable pressure

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.

A museum reconstruction of the Sankebetsu bear confrontation over a century ago. Pic: Wikimedia

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.

Autoclaves and retorts

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 Shaka principle

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.

Richard Walden

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:

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.

John Emanuel signed up manufacturers

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.

Meursing numbers in practice

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.

Fishy vegan salmon fillet?

Pic: Revo Foods

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…

Sealed fates

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.

Pics by Chris Jordan,

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.

Quantum food

Quantum food is the combination of interactions, balances and cycles that sustain life on this planet.

To be any more than a mind experiment, it needs focus. The aim is to sketch out a framework that readers will be able to use and understand what urban food chains are doing at a planetary level. We need to adopt a radically different approach to what we look for in data and re-assess what we can do with the data that we have, knowing that we are very unlikely ever to have completely accurate or comprehensive data. However, the process should broaden society’s view and understanding of the biosphere. Time is running out to harness the potential for diversity and seemingly unrelated variables. It is vital to listen to our world.

With apologies to quantum economists, I should first point out that the planet is a single resource, shared by creation. While we talk of the natural world or the industrial world, this is shorthand to identify the interest group that is being discussed. A single palm oil plantation in south east Asia is simultaneously a food production business to its owner; a source of income for the work force; a food desert for the local orang utan population that once used to roam the rain forest, which has since been cleared to feed some corporate vision; a source of palm oil for European food manufacturers; a future ice cream for an eager child, the list goes on. What matters is that there is no limit to the number of facets to any location of the planet.

Like the classic economist’s market, there are a number of reset points where one point simultaneously contains two linked processes. Take the example of predation and prey: as prey is digested or absorbed, it releases nutrients to its predator(s), bearing in mind that there may be more than one species of predator, for instance big cats may make a kill that will be picked over later on by carrion specialists. In the case of plants taking up water and nutrients from the earth around it, the presence of minerals in specific proportions can promote or retard plant development.

We can quite easily identify places and contexts where humanity controls and manipulates the world. We are not as good at trying to understand what other species may need in the same location or whether, indeed, we have even recognised their presence.

Quantum food will discuss data from as many species as possible. The food industry has its own measurements to draw on: from Brix to Baume, Pasteur to Papin, the world is full of data just waiting to be evaluated with a fresh vision. Follow the links to aspects of this view of the world further down this page and build a new view of the world.


Anyone with a weakness for biscuits will be interested to know that the complications caused by the application of Meursing numbers to Chapter 19 (pastry and biscuit products) are a thing of the past. Once a place of pilgrimage for importers of third country biscuits, this chapter was originally stuffed with product groups of biscuits ranked by dairy, sugar and flour content. Like a dazzled rabbit in car headlights, UK Brexit negotiators editing the biscuit chapter blew a fuse and deleted the whole lot. Refer to the Common European Tariff to see what you might have missed.

Meursing numbers and the price of policy

A former Brussels economist lent his name to a set of figures and formulae that quantified the cost of the EU’s agricultural policy to market prices. Since leaving the Commission, Mr Meursing appears to have disapperaed without trace.

At the foot of this page are links to articles discussing Meursing numbers, supplementary customs codes that encapsulate the composition of specific food products going through customs. These are the foundations of EU customs declarations and reflect the ingredients used.

I am starting a collection of posts to illustrate the application of Meursing numbers.