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Food Transportation: The History Of Refrigeration

Jul 23, 2014

Today, we're lucky that significantly decreasing the potential of bacteria growth on our food and consequent illness is as easy as proper storage in a functional freezer or refrigerator. But, it wasn't always so easy. Just ask the Ancient Greeks.

But, even still, the understanding of the importance of keeping food cold is not a new concept. Refrigeration practices, as we know them today, are just relatively recent advancements to the ancient practice of ice harvesting and food cooling that has been around for thousands of years. You may even be surprised to learn that the seasonal harvesting of snow and ice is an ancient practice estimated to have begun earlier than 1000 B.C. with the Chinese, who's collection of song lyrics from this time period, known as the Shih King, describes religious ceremonies in which ice cellars were filled and emptied. However, because the song lyrics are about as much information as we have on these ancient, cold storage units, little is known about their construction or what the harvested ice was actually used for.

Still, the Chinese weren't the only ancient society known to harvest ice. Other ancient people, like the Greeks and Romans, were also known to have used ice for similar purposes as the Chinese. Evidence shows that the Greeks and Romans had dug large snow pits, as a means to store cool beverages. The ancient Egyptians had also developed methods for cooling their beverages. Unlike the Greeks, Romans and Chinese, however, who used ice to cool their water, the Egyptians cooled their water a little bit differently. After putting boiling water in shallow earthen jars and then placing them on the roofs of their houses at night, slaves would then moisten the outside of the jars and the resulting evaporation would cool the water. It was this Egyptian concept that led the ancient people of India to eventually produce ice, not just harvest it, and, with this development, the Persians may have been the first people to not only use ice to cool their beverages, but also, to use cold storage for the purpose of food preservation.

It's amazing, really, how far back we can trace the development, harvesting and usage of ice for chilling purposes and those primitive cultures, remarkably, understood the value of ice as a precious and beneficial commodity. But let's fast forward, not only to spare you the tedious details of hundreds of years of tedious ice history, but also to jump to a time in which important, relevant developments were being made to the best practices of refrigeration, as we know them today.

Before the development of artificial refrigeration, people were forced to rely on harvesting and storing natural ice and it wasn't until 1755, when Scottish professor William Cullen designed a small refrigerating machine, that huge strides were made in the progress of artificial refrigeration practices of the modern age. The machine used a pump to create a partial vacuum over a container of diethyl ether, which then boiled, absorbing heat from the surrounding air. Ice was created as a result. The preliminary machine only created a small amount of ice, and had no practical application at the time, but the way was being paved for more successful and efficient ice making and storing machines. Contributions made to this early ice-making prototype made by scientists like Benjamin Franklin, John Hadley, Michael Faraday, Jacob Perkins and John Gorrie, eventually led to the birth of the first practical mechanical ice-making machine in 1851 and the first commercial ice-making machine in 1854 by British-born journalist James Harrison.

From that point, commercial refrigeration practices quickly progressed and advancements in refrigeration continued until the middle of the 20th century, when refrigeration units were no longer limited to chilling food products in fixed locations, but were also designed for installation on trucks and trains so that perishable, regional foods were now more easily accessible and available to consumers at far distances. Refrigeration had begun to play a vital role, not only in the storage, but also in the distribution of food.

Today, the list advantages of advancements made by refrigeration technologies, beyond the obvious reduction of bacterial growth and spoilage in food, is not a short one. Before the early 20th century, people's diets were greatly affected by the seasons, climate, and what could be grown relatively close to their region. Refrigeration advancements, particularly in trucks and trains, loosened the restrictions of these limitations, because foods could now be transported greater distances with less potential for spoilage. It allowed for a more diversified diet for people across the country. It's why today we can enjoy California avocados in Massachusetts and Maine lobsters in Texas.

Refrigeration also allowed for a more hygienic handling and storage of perishable foods, and as a result, promoted output growth, consumption and nutrition. Sure, food born illnesses and bacterial growth in food items are still very problematic in modern society, but in numbers that are dwarfed compared with those in the days before cold storage. With effective refrigeration came improvements in the quality of food nutrients and the reduction of food born illnesses.

It's difficult to discount the advantages that refrigeration brings to our lives. Healthier societies, diversified diets, reduced spoilage, and slowed bacterial growth are just some of the improvements that modern refrigeration practices guarantee, and so, when efficient refrigeration practices are not observed by people in the food industry, it's easy to see why there is cause for concern and public outcry. In a day in age where technology rules the world, what excuse is there for poor refrigeration? The answer is that there isn't.

And what's more, is with low-cost and easy-to-use, continuous, automated temperature monitoring devices, cold temperatures in refrigeration units, whether they be fixed or mobile, can always be guaranteed. And we can all feel a little bit better that the perishable foods we are eating are in fact safe for consumption. Believe it: cutting corners when it comes to food safety and proper storage isn't worth the nightmare of consequences that could erupt. If you tune in next week, you can learn more about a major food distributor that made a big mistake in the cold storage or their perishable foods and are now paying a serious price that could have been easily avoided had they had just taken more active steps to guarantee safe food storage and delivery.

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Written By:

Kate Hofberg, Epicurean Essayist

Temperature@lert’s resident foodie from sunny Santa Barbara, Kate Hofberg, creates weekly blog posts, manages the content database, and assists with the marketing team's projects. Balancing a love for both the west and east coast, Hofberg studied at University of California Santa Barbara, where she received a Bachelors in Communications, and Boston University, where she is currently a Masters candidate in Journalism. Before coming to Temperature@lert, Hofberg trained in her foodie ways through consumption of extremely spicy, authentic Mexican food with her three brothers and managing a popular Santa Barbara beachside restaurant. Through her training and love of great food, she brings fresh methods of cooking up content. When Hofberg is not working on Temperature@lert marketing endeavors, she serves as a weekly opinion columnist for the Boston University independent student-run newspaper, The Daily Free Press. If time permits, Hofberg enjoys long walks, reading, playing with her cat, and eating pizza. Her ideal temperature is 115°F because she loves temperatures as hot and spicy as her food.

Kate Hofberg

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