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The Strange Things We Do To Keep Our Food Cold

Whether it was shipped to you from somewhere, stored in a warehouse, or sold nice and chilly, over 3/4 of the food we eat has been commercially refrigerated

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Most of the food you eat every day was, at some point, frozen or refrigerated. Whether it was shipped to you from somewhere, stored in a warehouse, or sold nice and chilly, over three quarters of the food we eat has been commercially refrigerated. Cabinet details the ongoing battle we wage on a daily basis against rot, spoil and sour in our attempt to keep things cold.

First, there’s the reefer—refrigerated shipments of food. Cabinet writes about Barbara Platt, a pick-your-own apple farmer who joined the refrigeration industry in the 1970s:

To develop a science of refrigerated shipping, Pratt spent nearly seven years—most of her twenties—working and living in a refrigerated shipping container, complete with two bunk beds, a microwave, a refrigerator, a shower, and, most importantly, a fully equipped science lab. In addition to monitoring temperature, Pratt mapped airflow, humidity, plant respiration rates, and more within the containers. Her findings, combined with the invention of the microprocessor, completely redesigned reefer units, moving the airflow from the top to the bottom, adding air exchange vent capacity, and developing variable humidity, temperature, and gas regimes that were optimized to the particular needs of bell peppers, watermelons, pineapples, and avocadoes.

There’s the cheese cave —a limestone mine deep underground in Springfield, Mo., where Kraft, Oscar Mayer and Jell-O all stash their precious cargo:

The mine, which was begun in 1946 to extract agricultural lime and now produces aggregate for construction, is a hundred feet below ground, and thus maintains a steady 58°F—analogous to a natural cheese cave. Some of the blasted rock walls and the ceiling in the Kraft rooms have also been leftau naturel, albeit accessorized with special anchors to hold lights and fixtures. But the similarities to traditional affinage end there: Kraft’s industrial cheese cave is underground—alongside an increasing volume of refrigerated data centers and photo archives, as well as food storage—for reasons that involve energy savings rather than terroir. The facility’s manager, Tony Snyder, estimates that Kraft uses 65 percent less electricity than a comparable surface warehouse, even though they rely on a chilled brine pumping system to bring the temperature down to a much less microbe-friendly 36°F.

For meat there’s the ever-present meat locker, where whole animals hang from hooks. Take this one in the Bronx for example, run by Sam Solasz:

On an average day, $1.4 million worth of meat sits on wire shelves in Solasz’s sixteen-thousand-square-foot, 34°F dry-aging rooms. A given piece of meat typically spends twenty-one days there, where it shrinks in size by 15 percent while increasing in value by 20 percent. In addition to its preferred temperature, prime steak’s environmental requirements include 80 percent humidity levels—as high as possible to reduce shrinkage, without risking pathogenic bacterial growth—and constant air flow to ensure a uniform drying rate (at Master Purveyors, this is provided by an army of carefully placed standing fans).

The Cabinet story goes on to detail a banana ripening room, a juice tank pressurizer and a sushi coffin. For us, our foods come wrapped up nice and neat. Little do we know the feats of cold, hard engineering that went into keeping that food fresh.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Why Does the Refrigerator Have a Light and the Freezer Doesn’t?
Your Fridge Is the Most Important Invention in the History of Food

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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