WRRC is Historical Chemical Landmark

      Originally published in The Vortex, February 2003

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On December 11, 2002, the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC), Albany, CA, was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society. This prestigious designation recognizes WRRC s pioneering research on frozen foods including the freezing protocols, analytical techniques, and food handling and storage recommendations from the Western Regional Research Center studies which led to the superior flavor, texture, and appearance of today’s frozen foods.

 

At first glance, freezing food seems a simple thing, so when freezing equipment became available at the end of World War II many entrepreneurs tried to produce and sell frozen foods, frequently with disastrous results. Foods reaching the consumer had poor texture and color, bad flavor, poor nutritional quality, and even sometimes microbial spoilage. From 1946 to 1947, volume of frozen food dropped 87% because consumers didn’t like the product. Industry groups enlisted the aid of the USDA s Western Regional Research Laboratory to make recommendations for production of high quality frozen foods. Most of the research was done on fruits and vegetables, although there were projects covering poultry and baked goods.

 

When a fruit or vegetable is harvested it is still a living organism with mostly intact cells and with life processes continuing to move the harvested crop toward senescence. If its enzymes are not inactivated the reactions continue, even in the frozen state, albeit more slowly. Cell membranes are damaged by freezing, so that enzymes and substrates are no longer compartmentalized, and reactions often go on at a very fast rate when temperatures are increased and the product thaws. The study found that flavor, texture, odor, color and nutritional quality were affected by conditions all the way from harvest to the consumer s table. Post-harvest handling should consist of cooling the product and moving it to the processing plant as quickly as possible, then blanching to inactivate enzymatic reactions such as oxidation of lipids and phenolic compounds. Products should then be frozen quickly to oF and maintained at that temperature through warehousing, transport and retailing. The research required basic work on mechanisms of enzyme-catalyzed reactions. Many of the early studies of flavor and odor chemistry led to new developments in chromatography at the Albany laboratory. The results of the time-temperature tolerance (TTT) had a considerable societal impact. In 1950 when the project was beginning, the frozen food industry had sales of $500 million. That grew to $6.245 billion in 1965 and $68 billion in 1999. That year there were more than 550 major frozen food processors.

 

The award was presented by American Chemical Society 2001 President, Dr. Attila Pavlath, during a ceremony at the Center that was attended by over l00 dignitaries and guests, in addition to WRRC and Plant Gene Expression Center (PGEC) staff. The Ceremony included comments by Dr. Rodney Brown, Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics; Dr.Antoinette Betschart, Director, Pacific West Area; Dr. Frank Flora, National Program Leader; Dr. James Seiber, Director, Western Regional Research Center; and representatives of industry, academic, and civic organizations. An afternoon forum, Agricultural Research in the Future included comments by Dr. Brown; Dr. Betschart; Dr. Neal van Alfen, Dean, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of California, Davis; Dr. Paul Ludden, Dean, College of Natural Resources, University of California, Berkeley; and Michael Hurley, Laboratory Director, American Council for Food Safety and Health. After the ceremony and forum, the guests toured displays and WRRC facilities.

 

The forum brought up some interesting facts about food and agriculture. At the time that Thomas Robert Malthus was making his predictions about population and food (early 19th century) it took 200,000 square meters of land to support one person’s food needs. Today, it takes 2,000 square meters. In 2050, when world population will be 9 billion it will have to take 1,300 square meters per person. Not only will land be short, but water will be an especially limiting factor. There is a need for more agricultural research while funding is decreasing.