To Feed a Nation:
A history of Australian food science and technology

Keith Farrer

CSIRO Publishing 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
To Feed a Nation is broad-ranging, covering not just food science and technology but their underpinnings and connections: where relevant it touches on agriculture and husbandry, transport and distribution networks, finance and capital, medicine and public health, and the broader history of science. Part one briefly surveys Aboriginal food, the skills and knowledge accumulated in Britain over centuries and brought to Australia by the First Fleet, and the village technologies of early Sydney.

Part two covers the developments in food technology during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with chapters on meat processing, refrigeration, sugar, fruit and vegetable products, milling and flour-based products, fermentation (beer and wines), dairy products. It also covers early moves towards a scientific approach.

"Australia possessed salting from the earliest days, derived its canning, and was innovative in refrigeration. Canning technology was also applied to jam, then to fruits and other products, and so into the modern industry; refrigeration was quickly applied in the dairy industry. Both these developments were by-products of the British market pull for meat, and the technological response to it."
"Attempts from the mid-1920s to set up dairy research at CSIR met strong resistance from the smugness of state departments of agriculture and an industry organised in co-operatives which would rather make second-best products than face the capital and R&D expenditure necessary to make the best. ... It took a war to change a lot of attitudes."

Part three begins with the Second World War and the "watershed" of 1940-1960. Farrer then describes the building up of the foundations for food science, with the establishment of professional bodies and educational institutions and courses, with government and industry support; among the sciences themselves he stresses the importance of rheology, the physics of flows and deformation. He then surveys the challenges faced by specific industries and their responses.

"Possibly Australia's most spectacular success in food engineering was Dr DJ Casimir's invention of a spinning cone for the stripping of flavours, good and bad, from liquids. It has been developed commercially and applied to the collection of important volatile components from fruits, beverages and essential oils without damage either to the flavour collected or to the residual product. Early removal of flavours from a processed product conserves them and allows them to be returned in the final stages of processing."
"Newly milled flour has a yellowish tinge that has long been known to fade on ageing for two to three months. About 1900 it was found the flour from the mill could be bleached with agents such as oxides of nitrogen, ozone and chlorine. Modern practice is to use benozyl peroxide at levels considerably lower than those permitted. Cake flours, preferably from low-protein wheats, are chlorinated. Other additives include enzymes to ensure consistent fermentation of the dough, simple oxidising and reducing agents to moderate the behaviour of the gluten, mineral salts to ensure maximum yeast activity, and mould inhibitors to extend the shelf life of bread. In addition bread has been used as a simple medium for ensuring that the population gets a crucial nutrient, for instance calcium and phosphorus in wartime Britain, and iodine in certain goitrous parts of Australia."

Farrer concludes with chapters on the "new science" of nutrition and on popular anxieties and concerns over food additives, contamination, irradiation and genetically modified organisms. He takes a fairly "corporate" stance in these chapters, downplaying many public health concerns: "There is no such thing as a junk food, only junk diets", while lead has a "perceived" potential for damage in growing children, to give just two examples.

"In Australia in the late 1990s there were three serious food poisoning incidents which involved death and hospital admissions. They destroyed one company, damaged the reputations and balance sheets of the others, and shook consumers' confidence in the products involved. ..."

Much of To Feed a Nation is quite dry, and it is densely packed with the names of people and products and places and companies and organisations. This material is, however, connected with broader history and Australians will find many of the names familiar; it offers a different perspective on the brands and products in our supermarkets.

July 2006

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%T To Feed a Nation
%S A history of Australian food science and technology
%A Farrer, Keith
%I CSIRO Publishing
%D 2005
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0643091548
%P 230pp