Next time you're down the pub or watching television, nibbling away at some Cheese & Onion crisps, you might be intrigued to know that you are at the end of a supply chain of astonishing proportions; a huge hidden pyramid of human effort of which your simple snack is the tiny tip.
The crisp seasoning is a complex mixture of ingredients.One of them is dried onion powder, much of which originates thousands of miles away in sunny California.
Two huge companies dominate the dried onion and garlic business, and provide thousands of tons of products which are shipped all over the world. Like so many things, the development of dehydrated food was driven by war. Troops all over the world, and especially in the Pacific theatre in WW2 needed compact and durable food supplies, and this resulted in the rapid growth of these American dehydration companies, who supplied huge amounts of dried onions, garlic, potato and other products.
The story of modern onion powder begins in the laboratory. Advanced breeding techniques provide onions ideally suited to dehydration, with maximum flavour and minimum moisture content to save energy. Colour, yield, size and a host of other criteria are most carefully considered, and energy cost is of course a major factor in the process.
The favourite variety, Southport White Globe, bred specially for dehydration, is as hard as a cricket ball, unlike ordinary 'table onions', and is most unsuitable for kitchen use. Millions of seedlings cloned from the 'perfect' onion plant are grown and distributed the length and breadth of California and southern Oregon.
The fields of onions are carefully cultivated such that they ripen in sequence, from south to north, and each year a great fleet of men and machines set off from the hot desert country of southern California to bring in the harvest. Oregon, which has a much cooler climate, is where the season ends. Timing is crucial,
and the harvest teams move slowly north over many weeks, arriving at each field just as the onions are perfectly ripe. They work day and night, picking onions to be shipped to the dehydrating factory. Hours are long, the work is hard and the pressure relentless, and a high rate of marriage breakdown among onion harvesters comes with the territory.
The quantities are enormous, with one plant alone handling over 1000 tons of onions a day. Washed, peeled, cut into slices and dices, the onions are dehydrated down to less than 7% moisture on conveyors travelling through huge gas-fired drying ovens.
Needless to say, every visitor is instantly reduced to tears by the pungent atmosphere, but seasoned workers are made of stern stuff!
Some onion is ground into a fine powder, and rigorously checked for bacteriological and organoleptic quality. This is shipped in container loads to ingredients blending and flavour houses, who use it and other special products to create the Cheese & Onion crisp flavours with which we are so familiar.
The whole of this vast enterprise is geared towards consistency, from the original cloned cell to the finished product, and the quality standards are supreme. America has long been the leader in the advanced industrialisation and standardisation of food production. This is now the norm in modern global agribusiness, but remains largely unseen by users such as you and me.
Blithely ignorant of this unseen world behind something so apparently simple, we just munch away on our crisps, so next time you eat a pack of Cheese & Onion, spare a tear for the folk in those far-off onion fields of dreams!
Mike Biggs, March 13th, 2014