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The Coldscape
November 27, 2012 7:48 AM   Subscribe

More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak—a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit.
posted by Chrysostom (28 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
I submit my alternate title for this: "The Chilling Effect"
posted by inturnaround at 7:51 AM on November 27, 2012


My first job out of college...no wait, this is the confusing direction to tell this.

To transport things between cold warehouses, you need refrigeration trucks.
Refrigeration trucks need to have a refrigeration unit on them.
Those units sometimes need to be serviced.
Those service dealerships may need to order parts from the manufacturer.
That part ordering process needs software.
That part ordering software needs a developer.
That developer needs an employee to do all the grunt work (such as massaging the GUI so you could fit the translated strings back into the same spaces).
I was that grunt.
posted by DU at 8:01 AM on November 27, 2012 [9 favorites]


I used to write supply chain software, and I had a really tough time not snickering the first time I heard a customer say reefer.

The control that science has given us of the fruit-ripening process is nothing short of amazing. And while I certainly prefer buying local produce when it's in season, the idea that nearly all fruit is available all-year round is mind-boggling.
posted by Slothrup at 8:10 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Here's the image I've printed and put on my fridge to remind my daughter to fucking keep it shut.

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.

It goes 1,000,000x for these guys.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:13 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


massaging the GUI

NSFW!
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:14 AM on November 27, 2012


I can't get past the awkwardly hilarious phrase CHILLED FLESH.
posted by elizardbits at 8:16 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nice article -- not a lot of context, however. What's it cost, in whatever terms, to maintain and defend the Coldscape's borders?
posted by notyou at 8:17 AM on November 27, 2012


CHILLED FLESH

I'm pretty sure that I'm going to refer to meat as FLESH from now on.

What's for dinner honey? Steaks of bovine FLESH.
Did you need anything from the store? Chicken FLESH please.
Would you like breast or thigh? I hunger for dark FLESH.

Yes, I will say it in all caps.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:26 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's the image I've printed and put on my fridge to remind my daughter to fucking keep it shut.

A plea for caution...

As a boy, I once left my great-aunt's refrigerator door open. She - a kindly patient woman who had never spoken an ill-tempered word to me in my life - shut it herself, grumbling about the wasted electricity because "we're not rich like you".

I can only guess where that might have come from. Most likely, her husband - who liked to play the stock market - had suffered painful reverses. In any case, I'm 99% sure it had nothing to do with me.

Regardless, I was scarred for life. The site of a refrigerator door left open even momentarily while groceries are put away fills me with anxiety that can only be assuaged by shutting the door as quickly as possible.
posted by Egg Shen at 8:37 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


massaging the GUI

NSFW!


Especially when he grunts.
posted by NoMich at 8:41 AM on November 27, 2012


i once, several years ago, had the fascinating experience of visiting a massive deep freeze warehouse in the boonies of northwest lower michigan as part of a post-construction cleanup crew prepping a completed addition to the facility. you could see the glow of lights from this place 3 miles away. it's size was literally breathtaking (the area we were tasked with spiffing up was not yet refrigerated, and comprised only maybe 2-3% of the total square footage. i opened a huge stainless steel door into an operating portion of the building and beheld an immense space with 40 foot ceilings, and floor to ceiling racks. you could have fit half a dozen football fields in there. the entire place thrummed a constant roar of refrigeration units, the noise was astounding. forklifts operated by thick parka-clad drivers darted to and fro. this is the place. 5.6 million cubic feet of freezer space. i can't begin to comprehend the kilowatts that must be consumed running that place.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 8:49 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


Tropicana (a Pepsico company) was the industry leader, building 250,000-gallon stainless steel, individually insulated and refrigerated storage cylinders in an outdoor “tank farm” at its Bradenton, Florida, facility in the mid-1980s.

Oh hey neat. That's a hell of a facility. Wonder if the waste/evaporation ponds to the southwest are part of it.
posted by 7segment at 9:31 AM on November 27, 2012


I think part of the old-person anxiety about leaving the fridge open is that they would have had an icebox growing up, which is basically a big poorly-insulated cooler. Closing the icebox or cooler is vital. Leave the fridge open for a minute - oh no, an extra 5 cents of electricity. And the thing will cool itself right back down again afterwards.

I was yelled at too.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:42 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


After extensive experiments involving spray urethane, ice chips, newspaper, vinyl bags, and a pair of Canadian coffin makers, Okazaki and the JAL team finally succeeded in designing and building an entirely new, single-use refrigerated container that fit in the belly of its DC-8 planes, wasn’t prohibitively heavy, and kept fish fresh for the four-day journey. On 14 August 1972—thereafter known as “the day of the flying fish”—Okazaki’s tuna sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market for a respectable 1,200 yen per kilo.

I bet that's a hell of a story.

The author of the piece in the post is Nicola Twiley. Here is an interview with her.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:47 AM on November 27, 2012


That was weirdly fascinating! I hope she does develop it into a book, since I too would like to know more about the costs (and sustainability--especially given rising fuel costs) of some of these mechanisms. The politics, too, when you consider South America (there's a lot to expand on that throwaway line about United Fruit) and the Northern Hemisphere. It all sounds like one of those nonfiction books that are so hot right now, something like 'Frozen: a modern history of the refrigeration industry.'

When I was little, my mom told me about her life before refrigerators, primarily using an icebox. I didn't believe her, because clearly the 'fridge had always existed. Clearly.
posted by librarylis at 9:47 AM on November 27, 2012


The site of a refrigerator door left open even momentarily while groceries are put away fills me with anxiety that can only be assuaged by shutting the door as quickly as possible.

Now just imagine you were killing polar bears every minute it was left open. Scars ain't so bad.

not a lot of context, however

That's kind of what was missing for me too. How do they get some of these places cold, I mean what chemicals, etc?
posted by mrgrimm at 9:52 AM on November 27, 2012


More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. [* cite needed] (3/4 by volume, weight, SKU?)

anecdata: neither the grocery stores nor kitchens I'm familiar with devote 3/4 of their food storage space to refrigeration. And my fridge has a lot of stuff that wasn't in there until I opened the container or prepared something.

Seems to me that once under artificial refrigeration goods stay there until preparation or final consumption, so if it's cold in the store it was cold before. The corollary to that is that if it's not cooled in the store it probably wasn't kept cool earlier in the supply chain, thus looking at the ratio of storage space in retail gives a good idea of the upper bound.

This doesn't account for food consumed outside the home or from ingredients not purchased at retail, but I suspect they follow about the same rules.
posted by achrise at 9:58 AM on November 27, 2012


uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit

Do so many businesses in the US really not have some sort of stock control?
posted by biffa at 10:04 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


You guys who are having fun with the word "flesh" should consider switching to speaking German, since the word for "meat" is "Fleisch". You'd get to say it all the time!
posted by XMLicious at 10:38 AM on November 27, 2012


I think part of the old-person anxiety about leaving the fridge open is that they would have had an icebox growing up, which is basically a big poorly-insulated cooler. Closing the icebox or cooler is vital. Leave the fridge open for a minute - oh no, an extra 5 cents of electricity.

Speaking as a non-old person (I'm under 40) who has also "yelled at" kids for leaving the fridge door open: A minute? No. More like "please be sure you didn't close the door on a towel or something, meaning it stays open all night and we lose a freezer full of meat".
posted by DU at 10:40 AM on November 27, 2012 [2 favorites]


Where I used to live in Birmingham, England there were still traces of the pre-refridgeration infrastructure. There was an underground ice house at the local park (Moseley Park) where ice, apparently harvested from icebergs, was used to cool perishables and there was a miniature open canal system that ran through a trench about 8 feet below ground level in the backyards of some Victorian homes near the park that used water from the local pond to cool underground storage. It was a surprisingly effective system - the ambient temps around the canal were quite a bit lower.

It is really interesting to read and see these things that are or were part of the submerged background of everyday life. Thanks for this!
posted by srboisvert at 11:12 AM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]


spray urethane, ice chips, newspaper, vinyl bags, and a pair of Canadian coffin makers

Ah, must be Friday night.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 11:13 AM on November 27, 2012


When in the line at the supermarket, I'm often the only person who has non-refrigerated food. Everyone else has bought literally everything from the fridges and freezers. And I live in a neighborhood with a huge segment of vegan hipster-types. My daughter jokes that our local COOP looks like a specialist organic store mashed up with an ethnic grocery. But still, the bulk of sales are vegan-hipster pre-cooked meals or easy to process frozen vegs.
Go anywhere else in the city, and the frozen/cold departments are even larger and a lot meatier.
posted by mumimor at 11:18 AM on November 27, 2012


"Seems to me that once under artificial refrigeration goods stay there until preparation or final consumption"

That's not true in general; for example lots of fruits and other produce are kept in cold storage warehouses before they are sold. Apples ripen in the fall, but once picked they can be preserved in cold storage for several months and then sold in the winter.
posted by mbrubeck at 12:01 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


anecdata: neither the grocery stores nor kitchens I'm familiar with devote 3/4 of their food storage space to refrigeration.

I cannot vouch for the 3/4 figure, but there are a lot of foods that are shipped refrigerated but put in the store unrefrigerated. They may even outweigh (mass) those that go the other way around, like the ones you opened and then put in the fridge. Produce (fruits and veggies!) for example are often shipped chilled or even frozen (shhhh...), in the refrigerated trucks.

Trivia: the refrigerated trucks are loud. Conventionally, they use diesel for refrigeration and they are often left running idle at the distribution. Some cities and towns have consequently banned them from deliveries during certain hours. There are alternatives using liquid nitrogen. (example from one company; from another major in the same industry)
posted by whatzit at 12:09 PM on November 27, 2012


should consider switching to speaking German

I see you have never before dined with or near me when steak is happening and I must be physically restrained from shrieking WO IST MEIN FLEISCH for no other reason than it amuses me.
posted by elizardbits at 1:43 PM on November 27, 2012 [4 favorites]


That's not true in general ...

... but there are a lot of foods that are shipped refrigerated but put in the store unrefrigerated


Apples and other produce are presented in the grocery stores I'm thinking of in refrigerated displays. Not necessarily ones with freezer type doors, but still units with active cooling. I'm aware that sometimes they are not, but I consider the entire grocery section to be "cooled", and counting it's floorspace you don't get to 3/4.

Are there examples of "cooled in supply chain but not in retail" other than produce, that account for significant food consumed in the United States today?

"a lot of foods that are shipped refrigerated but put in the store unrefrigerated" does not equal "a lot of food put in the store unrefrigerated are shipped refrigerated".

Sure there are excemptions, but I just don't see getting to 3/4.
posted by achrise at 2:06 PM on November 27, 2012


Floor space in a grocery store isn't going to tell you anything relevant. There's a whole lot of space devoted to stuff that tends to sit on the shelf for quite some time. Spices, sauces, crackers, candies, canned goods, most of the baking aisle, noodles, et c. All in many varieties, most of which are not the ones that sell at all quickly. You've got relatively little space on the shelf for milk compared to breakfast cereals, but milk sells probably a lot more by volume and of course at least an order of magnitude more by mass if they're measuring things that way for some reason. It is logical in a way: Stuff that doesn't last forever gets limited shelf space so that you need less of it on hand to fill those shelves, and therefore it isn't sitting there as long before being sold. The more you keep in stock, the longer it has to last. The best-sellers are things like milk, eggs, fruit juices, vegetables. Frozen (at time of sale) food isn't as big a factor despite probably taking up more floor space than either dairy or produce. Maybe things have changed a little, but that's the way it was in the 1980's when I did some stocking of shelves.
posted by sfenders at 6:30 PM on November 27, 2012


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