Starting work on a history of food packaging some years ago, rapidly led to the realisation that it is also a history of a very long list of other things, including food preservation. But preparing a contribution for a conference called ‘Waste Not Want Not’ prompted looking at both the preservation and packaging of food from a slightly different angle. The two are intimately linked in a way that other relevant histories – such as of transport or the cold chain, the invention of plastic films or the very idea of convenience – associated with the development of food packaging are less so. For most food preservation techniques involve a wrapping, receptacle or package for storage – exceptions include meats or fruits that are dried solid, biltong or jerky, apple or pear.
Here are three illustrations which all happen to exploit the significance of oxygen when preserving foodstuffs. The first two involve drastically reducing atmospheric oxygen pretty much to create a vacuum. The third entails changing the proportion of oxygen in relation to the other main gases in the air we all breathe, modifying the atmosphere in the package.
The first example dates from prehistoric New Zealand. It is a Māori technique for preserving tītī commonly known in English as mutton bird – a fish-eating sooty sheerwater found in Australasia. A bag, pōhā, is made of split bull kelp which is then inflated then filled with cooked birds sealed with their own fat. Bags are then placed in woven flax baskets and can be secured with strips of bark for safe handling and transport.
Next is the history of the ubiquitous tin can. Nicolas Appert, a French confectioner (1749-1841) is often called the ‘father of canning’. He published details of his invention – translated as a way ‘of conserving all kinds of food substances in containers’ in 1810. Within a few months, an Englishman, Peter Durand, was granted a patent by George III that is virtually identical to Appert’s method. Duran sold the patent to Bryan Donkin, an engineer who already owned the Dartford Iron Works near London and who in 1813 opened a ‘preservatory’ i.e. canning factory in Blue Anchor Road, Bermondsey, London. The ‘great man’ solo inventor version of the history does not seem to be disturbed by the fact that only a few months separate Appert’s treatise being published in French in France and Durand’s being granted the patent published in English in England. It is important to remember, this is a time when confectioners, merchants and engineers may not have spoken a second language and a period when both countries were politically extremely wary of one another, if not actually at war.
One interpretation depends on suggestions of industrial espionage – casting Donkin as a spy. Not so well known, however, is a 1994 PhD by Norman Cowell, a retired food scientist who has worked through the archives of the Royal Society and the National Archives. He has identified a second Frenchman, an inventor called Philippe de Girard, who came to London and used Durand as an agent to patent what was apparently his own idea. Cowell finds strong circumstantial evidence that Appert and Girard were in contact. Thus he is led to propose that Durand can no longer ‘be seen as a naked opportunist pirating Appert’s invention: instead he appears as a London agent facilitating the exploitation by Girard (and probably Appert) of their inventions in the more technologically advanced world of British industry.’
Where the first two examples involved eliminating oxygen, the third postpones the food’s spoiling, by altering the percentage of this gas relative to carbon dioxide and nitrogen surrounding the foodstuff in proportions that differ from the air everyone breathes. One history identifies a turning point in the spread of Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) technology when, in 1981 Marks and Spencer (in the UK) introduced a wide range of fresh meat products packaged under a modified atmosphere. The use in the UK of MAP is labelled on the pack. But the wording avoids the word modified, using ‘Packaged in a protective atmosphere’ instead.
These three examples illustrate the following among other features. While it is very well known that food preservation is found worldwide and is very old indeed, so too can be what nowadays is called packaging. The second example illustrates how a history of an invention is not necessarily best written as solely springing from the efforts of a ‘great man’ and the socio-political context should not, of course, be ignored. And the third once again demonstrates that there are some food preservation technologies that cannot work without a package.