Issue #7 2021-09-27

Hairy seafood. Plus, a gas problem causes angst

  • Solar-powered space age protein: efficient or not?

  • Freshwater crabs: hairy, yummy and probably fraudy

  • The UN has a talk-fest

  • Winter is coming in the UK

  • Food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates from the past week


Welcome to Issue 7 of The Rotten Apple, a weekly newsletter for professionals, policy-makers and purveyors.

After sharing my scepticism about ‘space-age’ proteins last week, I repented somewhat and set out to learn more about the energy efficiencies of single cell protein production. Interesting results, and not what I expected!

Also this week: the Mid-Autumn Festival in China is underway, with a favourite seasonal delicacy at risk from fraudsters; a run-down of the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit and misery in the British food supply chain.

As always, this issue ends with a list of food fraud incidents and food fraud horizon scanning news from around the globe.

Thanks for reading!


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Sustainable Food Supplies

‘Space-age’ food production; is it actually sustainable?

Last week’s piece on Air Protein’s NASA-inspired technology got me thinking.

(By the way, it turns out that the hydrogenotrophs in the Air Protein process are fed on hydrogen made by the solar-powered electrolysis of water.  So totally not photosynthesis…. just garbled copywriting on the part of the source… )

So here’s the question: could it really be energy efficient to make a kilogram of protein using fancy microbial fermentations powered by solar electricity? Surely it’s more efficient to just grow a plant that gets its solar power directly from the sun and harvest the protein from the plant? 

Every time you convert energy from one state to another you lose a bit.  For example, converting solar energy to electricity to hydrogen is only up to 16 percent efficient at its very best. More than 84 percent of the original energy is lost.

In a process like Air Protein, further energy is lost during the microbial fermentation, then in the process of drying the fermentation products (biomass) into a useable powder. Such processes seem pretty inefficient in terms of energy use.

But if you think that sounds bad, plants aren’t so crash-hot at energy conversion either. According to Wikipedia the maximum photosynthetic efficiency of plants is 6 percent. 

I gave myself a few (more) grey hairs trying to find useful numbers about protein production efficiencies.  The ‘space-age’ tech is not new, and researchers were studying it in the 1970s.  But most of the early research disregarded energy costs.  Humanity’s interest in reducing fossil-fuel-derived electricity consumption hasn’t been around for long enough to create a large body of research about energy efficiencies in single-cell protein production. 

Luckily, a team of scientists from Europe and Israel have recently published new research on this topic.

They ran detailed calculations to compare the amount of protein that could be derived from high-tech, non-photosynthetic fermentation processes to the amount from conventional crops, for the same quantity of solar energy. Their analysis appears to be truly independent. 

They considered various methods of producing single-celled proteins (plus fungal proteins like Quorn) and used publicly available, peer-reviewed values for their modelling. The results were staggeringly in favour of the space-age processes

The high-tech processes can easily achieve double and sometimes triple the protein yield of traditional crops. And yes, they accounted for the energy costs of processes such as operating fermentation tanks, filtering and drying the biomass.  The results for yield per square metre of land were even more impressive.  I’m converted.

There are still plenty of reasons to be sceptical about claims that this tech can ‘feed the world’.  But efficient use of solar energy is not one of them.  In that regard, at least, this tech kicks traditional farming out of the park.

In short: 🍏 New research reveals that using solar as the input for high-tech single cell protein production is more energy efficient than growing conventional crops 🍏 Land use efficiencies are (unsurprisingly) also better 🍏

Read more/Sources:

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Food Authenticity

Hairy crabs; tasty, expensive and vulnerable to food fraud

It’s hairy crab time in China!  Freshwater hairy crabs, a highly-prized seasonal delicacy, have been beset by food fraud in recent years.

The ‘best’ hairy crabs are harvested from Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu province.  Others, that are wild-caught in lakes and ponds, or farmed in Japan and Taiwan, are typically five to ten times cheaper than Yangcheng Lake crabs.

Year after year, thousands of tonnes more ‘Yangcheng Lake’ hairy crabs are sold than caught from the lake - clearly, that’s an authenticity issue.

In 2016 I reported about how Yangcheng fishermen had devised a bar coding authentication system for their crabs.  The bar-coded labels were supposed to allow consumers to verify the provenance of their crabs.  However, after the bar-code system was announced, but BEFORE hairy crab hunting season had started in Yancheng Lake, markets began to stock ‘Yangcheng’ crabs with bar-codes. Officials confirmed that the barcodes were counterfeit and the crabs inauthentic.

This year, the news is around the sale of fraudulent crab ‘coupons’.  The coupons are sold as gifts that the recipient can exchange for a genuine Yangcheng Lake crab at harvest time.  The Mid-Autumn Festival is one such occasion for crab coupon gifts.

It’s being claimed that when crab coupons are redeemed the receiver gets an inauthentic hairy crab.  Other corruption issues with crab coupons include allegations that they are being ‘scalped’ by dishonest traders and that public money has been used to purchase them for bribes.

In short: 🍏 Hairy crabs are a prized seasonal delicacy 🍏 The high price and limited supplies of the ‘best’ hairy crabs make them vulnerable to food fraud 🍏 A bar-code-based fraud prevention system for Yangcheng Lake crabs was counterfeited by food fraud criminals in 2016 🍏 This year there are claims that hairy crab gift vouchers (coupons) are affected by fraud 🍏

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Sustainable Food Supply

The first-ever UN Food Systems Summit (talk and - hopefully! - action)

The first-ever Food Systems Summit of the United Nations (UN) was held last week.  The summit was attended by UN member states, producers, citizens, farmers and private sector representatives.

The aim was to make a plan to transform international food systems to help progress with the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

In addition to the most obvious global food problem; adequate nutrition for everyone, environmental concerns were high on the agenda: food production is currently responsible for one third of our global greenhouse gas emissions.

The summit ended with hundreds of commitments from member states and non-government groups who promised to take action across a range of different areas, including food security/nutrition, sustainable production, waste reduction and ethical labour supply.

In the lead up to the event there was controversy and disagreement over whether the UN should form a new scientific panel on food systems, similar to that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  Others argued that such a body was unnecessary, because there are already suitable international food bodies. Many were worried that such a group would be too vulnerable to the influence of politicians and big business.

Seems like the summit went well. A new sciencey-foodie panel was not formed. Lots of commitments were made. Now we just need to take the action.

In short: 🍏 The first UN Food Systems Summit resulted in 300 commitments to change food systems 🍏 The commitments address food security, nutrition, sustainable production, waste reduction and ethical labour 🍏 A food panel similar to the IPCC was not created 🍏 Talking’s done, let’s get on with the action! 🍏


Supply Chains

British misery; gas, gas and lorry drivers

While the rest of the world worries about having too much CO2, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a CO2 shortage of crisis proportions.  Carbon dioxide is used in the food industry for carbonating fizzy drinks and for extending shelf life in packaged foods.  Without adequate supplies, UK supermarkets are warning of food shortages and price rises for consumers.

There has been a sharp rise in the cost of natural gas in the United Kingdom, which has made production of industrial CO2 from gas unprofitable, causing one of the major CO2 producers in the United Kingdom to temporarily halt manufacturing. Industrial CO2 is also a by-product of fertiliser production and the recent closure of UK fertiliser plants has exacerbated the supply issues.

Other problems affecting the UK food supply chain at present include petrol (gas) shortages and transport issues due to a shortage of lorry (truck) drivers. These are being blamed on Brexit (specifically migration issues for lower-paid workers) and the pandemic.

In short: 🍏 British food supply chains are under pressure from CO2 shortages and transport problems 🍏


Food Fraud Incidents and Horizon Scanning

Food fraud incidents added to Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past week

Food Fraud Horizon Scanning (other updates to the Food Fraud Risk Information Database in the past two weeks)

Turkey Meat

The British Poultry Council is reporting mass vacancies across the poultry sector after immigrant labour shortages caused by Brexit. The shortage of workers has led some turkey farmers to warn there will not be enough turkeys for Christmas - United Kingdom 27/09/2021

Fresh Vegetables

Vegetables are being left to rot in fields in Scotland due to labour shortages among farm workers and lorry (truck) drivers.  Farmers have dumped or abandoned 7 million heads of cauliflower and broccoli – United Kingdom   24/09/2021


French wine production will be down 29 percent this year, compared to last year. France’s winegrowing regions were affected badly by frosts during spring.  The frosts followed warm weather which had caused early budding, making the growth susceptible to the frosts. The Burgundy-Beaujolais region is one of the worst hit.  As well as the frosts, its vines experienced hail damage.  The Champagne region had heavy summer rains which caused fungal diseases.  France is the world’s second largest wine producer, after Italy.