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History of Food Preservation

Updated on July 02, 2010

The story of the lines of bottled fruit and tins of baked beans in your larder goes back to the year1795, in France. The French government maintained a vast army and navy; it was involved with foreign wars, and revolution at home, and the troops had to be fed. To try to solve the problem the French government offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could invent a method of preserving food so that it would remain fresh and wholesome for long periods of time. For fourteen years the prize remained unclaimed, then a Parisian confectioner named Nicolas Appert, who had been experimenting with food all his life, produced a satisfactory method and collected the prize in 1809 from the great Napoleon himself. M. Appert used wide-mouthed glass jars into which he put the food, and heated them to drive out the air which he thought was the cause of food deterioration. Finally, he closed the jars with tight-fitting corks to keep the contents fresh. Soon, he was supplying bottled meats, milk, fruit and vegetables to the French Navy- this was long before the great Pasteur made his momentous discovery regarding bacteria. Nowadays, although far more is known about canning and food preservation, the basic principle is the same as that used by Appert.

The next year, 1810, an Englishman, Peter Durand, used for the first time as a container a metal canister, based on the design of the old tea canister- hence the word 'can'. The cans frequently burst, however, because like Appert, Durand did not know the scientific principles involved. Durand's hand-made cans were uneconomical, as only about sixty a day could be made, whereas a modern machine makes over three hundred a minute.

The same year, in Bermondsey, London, Donkin and Hall formed the first English canning company, which lasted as an independent firm for 54 years. Among other contracts, they supplied the British Navy with canned meat. In 1817, another Englishman, William Underwood, went to New Orleans to start a canning factory. At first, he was unsuccessful, but after several attempts in various places, he eventually settled down in Boston, Massachusetts in 1819. There he founded the first food preserving firm in America.

The first large-scale food preserving factory was founded at Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay, also by an Englishman, Thomas Kensett, about 1840. Although he had been canning food since 1819, he is believed to have re-invented Appert's process without knowing anything about the Frenchman's work. As Kensett's factory was on the coast, the products canned were mainly sea foods- oysters, crabs, lobsters and various fish. Later, fruit and vegetables were canned in addition. Gradually, other factories were built inland, where they could be in the crop-growing areas.

During these early days there were many failures in canning techniques, and the canners had great difficulty at first in overcoming the publics prejudice and reluctance to buy their products. Canned food was regarded with suspicion, or as a luxury, for, naturally, because of the labor costs, all canned foods were expensive. But foods canned under modern conditions are far less likely to be as infected as real fresh foods; peas are usually picked and canned the same day, thereby losing none of their nutritional value.

In 1857, a tremendous discovery was made that was destined to revolutionize the whole of the canning industry. Louis Pasteur discovered that it was not air that destroyed the food, but minute organisms called bacteria which are present in all natural foods. The bacteria responsible for decomposition must be killed or their growth stopped if food is to be kept for any length of time. In the canning process, the bacteria are killed by the application of heat to the sealed tin.

When the American Civil War began in 1861, only about 5 million cans of all foods combined were manufactured yearly. Because the armies were so large and consequently unable to live adequately off the land, canned foods became almost essential, and something had to be done to speed up the canning process. Up to this time, boiling water had been used for heating the cans, but it was found that by adding calcium chloride to the water the temperature could be brought up to 240°F and more. The cooking process was thus reduced from five or six hours to half an hour. Cooking the cans in boiling oil was another way of securing higher degrees of heat, but the waste of precious time taken to clean them before they were labeled and dispatched was the serious disadvantage of this method. By the end of the Civil War it is estimated that production had increased by about 600%.

A little before this date, in 1860, were laid the foundations of what was to become one of the world's greatest manufacturers of canned and bottled foods. A young man of sixteen, full of energy and ideas, one day had a brainwave. The vegetable horseradish grew in the garden of his home in Sharpsburg, in the U.S.A., and he had the idea that dried and grated horseradish would save the time, and tears, of local housewives. He grew a large crop, and bottled the prepared product. Up to this time, the regular manufacturers had used dark green glass bottles for their products, so that it was very difficult to judge the quality of the contents by merely trying to look through the glass. In those days, many of the makers used to put in bits of turnip, beetroot and other odds and ends to fill up the bottles. Not so our bright young man, he used clear glass containers to enable the grocer, and his customer, to see that his product was pure horseradish. Pure, clean horseradish, that was the keynote. The business became so successful that a company was formed in 1869 and new quarters were later established in Pittsburgh. The young man's name was Henry John Heinz.

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