Food Waste Solution Makes Work for Happy Microbes

Food Waste Solution Makes Work for Happy Microbes

Longtime readers of this newsletter will know that we at DFC love bacteria – specifically those found in the human microbiome. These little guys not only improve our health, but generally astound scientists the longer they look at them!

Happy bacteria have long been known to have a beneficial effect on human digestion. But new research is pointing to a similar good influence on the other end of the food chain. A team out of UC Riverside has determined that fermented food waste when applied as fertilizer to food crops, can boost the crops’ resistance to pathogens and reduce their carbon emissions. This has the two-fold benefit of increasing yields and finding a use for the pernicious problem of food waste.

“[The team] examined the byproducts from two kinds of waste that is readily available in Southern California: beer mash — a byproduct of beer production — and mixed food waste discarded by grocery stores.

Both types of waste were fermented by River Road Research and then added to the irrigation system watering citrus plants in a greenhouse. Within 24 hours, the average population of beneficial bacteria were two to three orders of magnitude greater than in plants that did not receive the treatments, and this trend continued each time the researchers added treatments.

UCR environmental scientist Samantha Ying and her team then studied the carbon dynamics and nutrients including nitrogen in the soil of the treated crops. The analysis showed a spike in the amount of carbon in irrigation water after being treated with waste products, followed by a sharp decrease, suggesting the beneficial bacteria used the available carbon to replicate.”

Additionally, the team determined that the food waste slurry had no salmonella or other harmful bacteria in the mix, indicating the chance for food-borne illness using this type of fertilizer is low.

The team recently published its findings and is enthused at the possibility of creating a sustainable, closed system for food production. I’m a fan too, but I really enjoy the fact those wee cheerful bacteria are going to have a field day in the fields, as well as in our guts!

Cheese Pic Melts Drug Empire into Justice Fondue

Here’s another fun one from the intersection of food, tech… and crime! A British drug dealer was busted this spring after snapping a picture of his favourite cheese, blue Stilton. The erstwhile kingpin took the photo of the wedge of Marks & Spencer branded cheese in the palm of his hand and shared it – inadvertently revealing his fingerprints to law enforcement. And those intrepid coppers were lying in wait.

“Like many other criminals, Liverpool resident Carl Stewart used the encrypted communications platform EncroChat to supply underworld networks with large shipments of narcotics. Under the handle ‘Toffeeforce,’ Stewart pedaled heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and ketamine—apparently bringing in large profits. […]

Stewart’s arrest is part of a massive, ongoing law enforcement operation targeting the users of EncroChat. The platform, now defunct, previously gave cover to thousands of alleged criminals, who thought they could use the app to secure messaging about their illicit operations. However, law enforcement agencies managed to crack into the platform—beginning at least last summer.”

Stewart shared the pic of his perfectly legitimate snack on his EncroChat-enabled phone, connecting the dots for police to I.D. him. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to supply the drugs in question and transferring criminal property, and was handed a sentence of 13-and-a-half years in prison.

If only Stewart had stuck to cheese – posited several years ago to have the same effect on the human brain as hard drugs – rather than the hard drugs themselves! Or, at the very least, kept his grocery store glamour shots safely siloed on a burner phone. Jokes aside, this is yet another lesson that crime doesn’t pay – and it especially doesn’t pay for fancy artisanal cheeses.

Rooibos Tea Cuts Through European Red Tape

What do champagne, Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, and alfajores all have in common? Well, besides being mind-bendingly delicious in their own way, each of those foods is on the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin list (PDO). PDO status was created by the EU to specially designate food, wines, and agricultural products that have strong links to the places in which they are made, often with traditional methods –  protecting that product’s name and reputation from fraudulent use.

This Eurospecific designation has now branched out into other areas of the world, with the addition of another of my absolute favourites, rooibos tea. Rooibos – “red bush” in Afrikaans – is a herbal tea that is grown in the Cedarberg region of South Africa, which can be brewed and enjoyed any way black tea is.(Seriously, a caffeine-free cuppa with a bit of milk, and a biscotti for dipping is the perfect nightcap.) Rooibos tea’s bid for EU protection is an interesting peek into the high-stakes world of food certification, as Patrick Egwu of Quartz Africa relates:

“In the past, the South African Rooibos council has been involved in legal battles over the illegal use of the product’s name in other countries. This included stopping a French company in 2013 from trademarking the name. But with the recognition, [South African Rooibos Council’s Marthane] Swart says this will solve these issues. […]

Swart told Quartz that the use of the EU PDO logo on the tea indicates quality, reliability, and originality to consumers of the product. According to a study by the European Commission, food and drinks with geographical designations generated € 77.1 ($91.7 billion) in 2017.

EU certification also results in premium pricing for products. According to Swart, ‘The European market tends to favor any product with such recognition and you can normally earn a higher price for the product,’ she says. ‘We don’t know how it will happen for Rooibos, but we are certainly hopeful that it will happen.’”

It seems that the logic of a South African product gaining EU PDO certification lies in unlocking the European market for real rooibos tea. This makes sense: The existing tea market is big, and growing, with Ireland shouldering the bulk of European consumption. If Europeans have a taste for a new flavour, rooibos could be in a perfect position for business. And I’m personally glad both industry and consumer get something out of this: Having had a cup or two of spurious blends in my day, I appreciate that someone is invested in what ends up in my cup!

Black Market Nuts and the Limits of Technology

Now, I like pistachios as much as the next person. (Which is to say, I will open a bag, blackout for 20 minutes, and then come to with a fine, pale green dust in the air and all the nuts mysteriously gone)

But apparently, I don’t like pistachios as much as 34-year-old Alberto Montemayor does – though, more accurately, he may be more interested in their monetary value than their rich, buttery taste. Montemayor was recently discovered to be the perpetrator of California’s largest-to-date nut heist, having lifted 42,000 pounds (19 tonnes!) of them from Touchstone Pistachio Company, a pistachio grower and processor.

Turns out, the black market in stolen nuts is quite lucrative, especially in California, where regular nut trade churns $5.2 million USD through the state economy. And, like any bootleg concern, the illegal nut market boasts its own unique set of rules and fascinating culture.

“Nuts are an ideal high-priced items to steal and resell because unlike electronic devices, pistachios don’t have serial numbers — making them virtually untraceable. […]

Thieves have used forged documents, fake companies and computer hacking, BuzzFeed News reported in 2016, to pose as legitimate truckers. Similarly, the thieves are also able to sell off the product to retailers, who are none the wiser about who is actually receiving the money. Last July, the Kern County Sheriff’s Office arrested two men accused of going to an almond and pistachio distribution center and posing as drivers picking up a shipment. […]

But during the past few years, thefts have declined as the farm industry has become savvy to the schemes and larger growers have adopted new policies, such as taking photos and thumbprints from drivers.

Until now, this type of theft was possible due to its sheer low-techness. (Police found most of the pistachios in a simple trailer in a nearby parking lot, where Montemayor had divided them into 2000 pound sacks for an easy sale.) But Touchstone kicked the case into gear through an audit, which uncovered the bizarre deficit. And, with authorities bringing the abovementioned new policies to bear on would-be nut-bandits, that exploitable tech gap is closing. And anything that increases the chances of pistachios ending up in my mouth is fine by me!