The “value” of food can be simplistically quantified by a formula: Value = Quality/Cost. While many individuals have helped lower costs and raise and preserve quality, two deserve special mention for the creative, disruptive ways they helped reshape and foster today’s global food supply.
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2018
Maxton, N.C., was struggling as the Great Depression’s grip on America’s economy tightened in the early 20th century. Settled by the Scottish in the late 1700s, Mack’s Town was shortened to Maxton, a more fitting and proper name for place that was becoming a railroad center. But as local timber disappeared and farm prices plummeted, even the railroad couldn’t keep Maxton’s economy from the margins.
By all accounts, Malcom McLean was a bright boy with good prospects. But typical of the time, his family’s income was insufficient for him to go on past high school, especially in the mid-1930s. So McLean did what he could, driving a truck, moving empty tobacco barrels around the state. While family finances limited his educational reach, perhaps they fueled his desire for economic stability, even growth. He and his two siblings formed a small trucking company; McLean still driving, but now bringing cotton up north for export.
With U.S. Highway 1, the main route north more a cobbling of established roads than a real interstate, it took far longer to get to New York’s ports than it takes today. And once he arrived, his trip was only beginning.
The cotton was off-loaded from McLean’s truck only when the stevedores who handled ships’ cargo had a place to put it on the pier, so it could then be hoisted into the ship’s hold. And whether McLean was patient or not, it must have seemed a waste of time for a man in a hurry to “turn and burn.” There had to be a better way.
Maybe it is apocryphal or maybe it’s true, but it’s rumored during his trip up north, McLean asked, “Why couldn’t an entire truck be hoisted aboard ship, for instance, and then used for delivery purposes at the other end of the line?”
It took McLean another 20 years to realize his vision. Loading an entire truck and its contents wasted too much precious space, so he had to develop containers. And cargo ships had to be redesigned to accommodate these newly created and standardized containers.
Malcom took a World War II tanker and retrofitted its deck to carry his new containers, and in 1956 the first container ship sailed out of Newark, N.J., with 58 containers that six days later were unloaded in Houston. It took some time, but the wake of that shipment was felt globally and it changed the face of the shipping industry, remaking ship and harbor design, creating a new manufacturing sector for containers—while, it should be noted, decimating an established workforce and their union. When all was said and done, the cost of loading a ship was reduced from $5.86 per ton to 16 cents.
The history of food refrigeration for transportation dates back centuries. In the early 1800s, Frederic Tudor, “The Ice King” of Massachusetts, developed a means to harvest the ice formed on lakes and ponds during New England’s winter, and subsequently transported the ice to the far warmer climes, even the sun-soaked Caribbean.
At his peak he was sending ice to India, 12,000 or more nautical miles away. Having demonstrated the ability to ship ice, it was only a small step to use ice for protecting perishable produce. Food grown in one part of the country could be packed in ice and transported by rail across to the other. In fact, the name for iceberg lettuce is claimed to come from the piles of ice packed in with the lettuce when it was shipped by railcar.
While containers had lowered shipping costs, they remained less than ideal. Simply placing a refrigeration unit in a container was not working; some goods arrived in good condition, others were ruined. Saving money on shipping only to be lost to spoilage was not a great bargain.
Sea-Land, the company McLean started, needed a better box. It found an answer during the late 1970s in Barbara Pratt, a newly graduated physics major from Cornell University who spent the next several years in a laboratory investigating what was then the little-known science of refrigerated transportation—otherwise known as “the cold chain.”
Her first project: moldy cocoa beans.
According to Pratt, “What happens typically is when the sun comes up the temperature increases inside a dry container, that would create a mini oven, and that draws the moisture out of the beans…And what happens when sun goes down at the end of the day, the water then condenses out of the air because the air temperature changes. It would then become water droplets [and] drop onto the bags of cocoa beans, and when you have excess moisture you would then have mold growing.”
A 40-foot container (evidently the standard of its time) was retrofitted with living quarters on one end and laboratory space, computers, and sensor cabling occupying the rest. The Mobile Research Lab, like any other container, was placed aboard a ship, the cabling connected to sensors in containers carrying perishables and the actual environment within the containers studied at sea.
Pratt’s findings for cocoa beans resulted in changed airflow patterns. In the course of her research, she and her team looked at over 100 commodities and their findings resulted in new container designs that incorporated customized ventilation, airflow, and temperatures for a range of fresh produce. In many ways, Pratt’s redesigning of McLean’s original containers, now called reefers, made today’s cold chain possible.
An estimated 70 percent of what we eat today passes through the global cold chain. American consumers may not be aware of McLean and Pratt, or of the advances we have made in cold chain logistics. But through their efforts, as well as the work and thoughts of many individuals, the global distribution of fresh food and perishable pharmaceuticals is helping feed the hungry and care for the ill in ways that were unthinkable 50 years ago.
And that is real value.
Dr. Dinerstein is a Senior Medical Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. Reach him at email@example.com.
This article is being published with the permission of the American Council on Science and Health.