70% of All Our Food Relies on Refrigeration

The sign says 'buy local' but even if these 'fresh' apples are local, they have probably still been sitting in a cool store for many months before being shipped to the supermarket.
The sign says ‘buy local’ but even if these ‘fresh’ apples are local, they have probably still been sitting in a cool store for many months before being shipped to the supermarket.

One of the issues we as preppers instinctively accept and understand but struggle to explain to non-preppers, is the huge degree of fragility and multiple dependent layers upon which today’s society is built.

Exactly like a house of cards, if a single component in any of the dependencies fails, the entire structure is at risk of colossal failure in a manner that would not have been possible 50 or 100 years ago.

The problem we have in explaining these dependencies is that many of them are obscured and not at all intuitively obvious.

Here’s an interesting example of a surprising statistic and dependency.  70% of the food we eat passes through or is dependent on the ‘cold chain’ – refrigeration is needed as part of its processing, storage, and distribution.

Some of this we know about already.  It is unsurprising to learn that the milk we drink and the meat we eat has been chilled pretty much through its entire history from the minute it was first obtained.

Some other things are less obvious, but if we think about it, we’re not very surprised.  Look in the produce section of your supermarket, and although you’ll see things like potatoes and onions in bags or loose, displayed at room temperature, we might realize that they’ve been sitting in cool stores for months between when they came out of the ground and were put on display in the supermarket.

Oh – and of the potatoes we eat (the average American eats 36 lbs a year), most are not just kept chilled/cool, but are actually hard frozen.  Astonishingly, 29 of the 36 pounds of potatoes we eat are in the form of frozen French fries.  Who’d a thought?

The same is true of fruit as well.  Apples, oranges, etc – all these things are kept in special temperature environments – indeed, not just the temperature is managed to a very exacting degree, but so too is the humidity and even the gas mix surrounding the fruit.

But how about things as unobvious as, for example, even peanuts?  Yes, they too are kept in cool storage to extend their shelf life.

Our point is simply this.  A power failure – even a power shortage – would threaten 70% of our food supplies.  Without refrigeration, we’d have two problems.  The first is that we’d no longer be able to harvest food when it was plentiful, inexpensive, and in season, then store it for future sale/consumption some months later.  This would make for a crazy situation with some months having enormous gluts of food products and other months having nothing at all.

The second is that without refrigeration, we’d no longer be able to have vast distances separating where our food is grown and where it is eaten.  At present food travels at times almost literally half way around the world to reach our supermarkets.  If we had to rely on food grown within a day or two of our homes, that would destroy the viability of many major cities because the amount of food growing area needed to support the millions of people in the urban concentrations would stretch out impossibly far.

Anyway, food for thought, as it were. 🙂

More details in this rather pompous article and this very incomplete web site.

13 Replies to “70% of All Our Food Relies on Refrigeration”

  1. RoyG

    Thats why people need to learn how to can, dehydrate salt and cure foods the old fashion way.

    It hasn’t always been like this; it’s the complacent mentality that has grown from it… my grand parents stored food in the pantry by canning and they never did without even in tough times.. it was something they passed down through the family.. have enough canned goods and supplement with the home canned items…

    • David Spero

      Hi, Roy

      I of course agree that we all need to make ourselves less dependent on commercial food sources, and we also need to know how to preserve/store food so we can harvest it in season then keep it and eat it over the months that follow.

      The other point of my article however is that society as a whole – and its food supply – is tremendously vulnerable to a disruption that would interfere with the ‘high tech’ method of food preserving and storing currently used. The problem this poses is, yes, in part ‘What Would We Do?’, but the equally large – maybe even larger – part of the problem is ‘What Would Everyone Else Do (and how would that impact on us)?’.

      Thanks for your comment.


  2. CPD

    Having fruits such as strawberries in the middle of winter is a luxury that we did not enjoy just 40 or 50 years ago. We had to eat what was in season, which meant you waited for months to enjoy something and then ate enough of it that you were a little relieved to see it go out of season. Back then, getting a basket of fresh fruit from Florida at Christmas time was a much better gift than it is today.

    I do not disagree with your premises that refrigeration is critical to our food supply and that the “Just in Time” nature of our food delivery system is a very weak link for anyone who is not prepared. My point is simply that people can and will adapt, if given time. If society collapses in a matter of days, most of the country will be in trouble. On the other hand, if the slide towards TEOTWAWKI is slow, many people will be able to change their expectations and habits and will adapt to a new reality.

    In other words, if an EMP blast knocks out not only the refrigeration, but transportation and the stoves we cook on, then society is in deep doo doo. But if the rising oil prices or a sinking dollar gradually make fruit in the winter or a steak dinner too expensive, most people will adapt, just as those directly affected by the current recession have done.

    During the gas crisis of the late 1970s, my family ate no expensive meats, occasionally enjoyed spam and eggs for dinner, consumed a lot of beanie weenie, a ton of slumgullian, too much cabbage, and prepared many other foods that stretched the dollar. We can do it again – as long as we do not expect every meal to come from a microwavable box or a drive through window.

  3. OrkneyOctopus

    “The first is that we’d no longer be able to harvest food when it was plentiful, inexpensive, and in season, then store it for future sale/consumption some months later.”

    Well, we *would* be able to store it for later, but there’s a learning curve involved most of us would die trying to climb. It’s not much of a stretch to think that whatever event puts the kibosh on refrigeration would also take a heavy toll on many people’s cooking ability, so canning becomes lots harder. Fermentation, confiture, and drying will suddenly become things people are interested in again.

  4. Jordan

    In addition to all the points raised in the article and by other commenters, I think this also shows why it would be tremendously wise for homeowners and businesses to invest in local, decentralized power generation technologies.

    More research on and adoption of hydro, solar and wind power, as well as the miniaturization of nuclear reactors would help to mitigate the risks of grid collapse. There’s not much these things could do to prevent an EMP disaster, but for most other scenarios, I think that decentralization of power is key to survival.

    • David Spero

      Hi, Jordan

      That is an excellent point you raise. One of the downsides of ‘economy of scale’ and ‘centralization of resource’ is increased vulnerability.

      Local power generation is a tremendously sensible concept for many reasons – not the least of which is saving the approximately 10% of power which is lost as it travels long distances between where it is generated and where it is consumed. Instead of forcing us to abandon incandescent light bulbs, why can’t the authorities instead do exactly as you say, and promote/progress efficient micro-power generating facilities.

      The biggest factor post-WTSHTF will be power. With ample power, everything else becomes easy, including food cultivation. Without ample power, everything else becomes hard. As you point out, decentralization of power truly is key to survival.

      Thanks for your post.

  5. SM

    As a person who has lived in a tropical climate without refrigeration of any kind for more than a decade, I can personally attest that the general premise of the article’s title is incorrect. It is true that food bought at grocery stores today are mostly processed using some type of refrigeration and require further refrigeration. However, refrigeration is not necessary when mostly fresh items are procured, either from your own garden/ranch, or from a local farmer’s market.

    If one knows what to look for, how to prepare certain items, and how to store them, refrigeration is only required for items that can be counted on one hand. Two examples of items that do not require refrigeration of any kind are eggs and cheese, yet the majority of western cultures erroneously believe otherwise. Fresh eggs should be kept in a container and flipped weekly. Gravity pulls on the yolk of an egg and it passes through the albumen (white) until it contacts the shell and quickly spoils. Refrigeration keeps the yolk suspended. By flipping non-refrigerated eggs, the yolk stays suspended in the non-refrigerated albumen. You can also give a light coating to the shell with any type of cooking oil or petroleum jelly to close the pores in the shell to prevent spoilage. Cheese once came as wheels coated with wax (actually it still does, but the processor or grocer removes it.) One can also coat cheese cloth in vinegar and cover the cheese to preserve it. So that’s what cheese cloth is for? And you thought is was only good for buffing the paint on your car.

    If you want to learn something new, read an old book. Mankind survived without refrigeration for tens of thousands of years all the way up to about 100 years ago. Why is it suddenly a problem if the refrigerators stop working?

    • David Spero


      Thanks for your thoughtful post, and I’ve certainly learned much more about eggs than I knewbefore.

      But, to cite eggs as one specific case where refrigeration is not needed hardly proves your broader point. You say ‘eggs don’t need refrigeration’; I say ‘but milk does’. You say ‘wrap cheese in cheese cloth’ and I say ‘but what about butter?’.

      You say ‘refrigeration is not needed if you have your own garden/ranch or a local farmer’s market’; I say ‘and what about the vast majority of Americans who have neither a garden/ranch nor proximity to a local farmer’s market, and what if the farmer’s markets changed from being boutique things that provide maybe 1% or less of the nation’s fresh food to becoming the major source of food?’.

      I agree that there are solutions to a lack of refrigeration. But hopefully you’ll agree that, for maybe 90% of the population, they’ll starve long before they’ve managed to implement such alternatives.

      • OrkneyOctopus

        Although I agree with you that loads of people will starve without refrigeration, speaking worldwide, nowhere near 90% of the population worldwide is as accustomed to refrigeration, and many will survive just fine. Also, milk and butter don’t necessarily need refrigeration either. Raw milk doesn’t spoil the same way pasteurized milk does — it ferments and turns into yogurt. Among “non-refrigerated” populations, drinking fresh milk is extremely uncommon. It’s almost always soured. Butter by itself lasts quite well on the counter in temperate climates for several days, especially when protected from oxygen with something like a “butter bell” (http://www.butterbell.com/), and when clarified, will last for years in a closed container kept cool and dark. For that matter, when we say the butter has “gone bad”, few Americans, at least, actually know what they’re talking about. Generally “gone bad” means it is rancid, but most Americans pay so little attention to their food they wouldn’t know what rancid butter was when they tasted it. Which is also why commercial whole wheat products manage to sell, despite being universally rancid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *