In love with Jamón – but hiding the Lovestory

Science is often of direct practical relevance for everyday life. But it seems scientists and their press people spend much energy to hide their stories to the general public.

Six Ways to hide a Story

Scientists don’t get into the shoes of the general public (even though they themselves are normal people as well)
They communicate only among their peers.
They think they should never tell about their science the way they talk to their friends.
They use technical insider language.
They think they should never tell about their science the way they talk to their friends.
They hide what could make a story for the general public in the middle of tons of web pages that they arranged according to scientific and organisational criteria.

Everything is a “System”

I met with a striking example when I once visited the Catalan agricultural technological research institute IRTA on its Monells Campus http://www.irta.cat/en/centre/irta-monells/ near Girona. In an interview training a scientist told me about a “device” and a “system” that they would use to measure the composition of ham in the drying “process”. “Device”, “system” and “process” are the perfect terms to be on the safe side, because they can be everything. So, you never make a mistake when you call something a “system”. But these are also perfect terms to hide what is actually going on, to hide a story that can be of interest to everybody who is listening to you.

It took me a lot of follow-up questions in the interview to figure out what it was about.  And when I got there, I  was amazed: This was a beautiful attractive story for media that I had just discovered!

Jamón Emotions

a scientists samples the smell of some ham slices
Screenshot from IRTA video about jamón quality

It’s about a CT, a computer tomograph! What I learned: As the whole Spain is crazy about their jamón, their dry-cured ham, they and their food scientists want it to be perfect: Not too salty – but a bit salty. Dry and tender – but not too dry. The best aroma through the drying – but it should not take too long to achieve it. In the end the perfect taste and the perfect texture. And this quality assured in hundreds of thousands of dry-cured pork-legs.

Also, it is costly if you make a mistake. After months of drying or smoking the ham a whole truck load of pork legs may be rotting in the food factory if you used too little salt.

The IRTA scientists are just as passionate about this as the Spanish food industry. So they had searched for a way to make sure that the best-ever dry-cured ham can be produced.

Love with medical Care

And how? They shove the whole pork leg into a computer tomograph with as much care as if it was their own sick mother.

Later I saw how the IRTA communications people had hidden that potentionally beautiful story on their website and had used almost all the techniques I have named above to make it unattractive for the general public. You may read it here:  

Simply put

Look at the headline: “applications”, “processes” – there they are, the terms that are never wrong but hide a story!
Put into simple words, one thing that they meant to say is the following:

For dry-cured ham you must use salt – just enough to keep it from mouldering. You can measure the saltiness of the meat without slicing or drilling into it for a sample. Our scientists have found a way to calculate the composition of the ham like it’s salinity. To do this they scan it with computer tomography.

These are the facts in sober words. The “juice” in a media report would be in the picture plus in the ham-loving character of the Spanish people of all ethnic backgrounds – even in Catalunya, if you allow that remark. IRTA is a Catalan state-owned company.

They do not use a photo on that page. I found this tiny picture of it somewhere else on the overview pages of the http://irta.cat  website.

“Why tell a story, if bullet points are available?”

That’s how a scientist may think. Bullet points in a presentation with slides during a conference. So, compare to what people of IRTA published. I quote in full:

“Computed Tomography (CT) is one of the emerging technologies of interest to food industries as it permits non-destructive control of the product during the elaboration process.

CT has been found to be especially helpful when studying the salting and drying process of dry-cured ham.

CT adaptation

Salt and water content as well as water activity can be predicted in dry-cured ham during the elaboration process using developed predictive models, which use X-rays emitted at two different energies (80 and 120 kV). Using these models, salt, water or water activity distribution images can be obtained, which are useful for studying elaboration processes.

Prediction of these parameters enables the establishment of minimal threshold values of these parameteres in critical areas, which in turn can be used as criteria to avoid either sensory defects or microbiological hazards.

CT is especially helpful when optimizing elaboration processes in which salt content is reduced.

Applications

  • Study of factors affecting the salting process.
  • Control of food safety and quality of salt-reduced products.
  • Optimization of salting, post-salting and drying processes.
  • Evaluation of final product quality.

Services

  • Improvement of productivity and automation.
  • Quality management of salt-reduced products.
  • Food safety of salt-reduced products.
  • Optimization of elaboration processes.”

Try it out yourself

For the fun of it, you might try to find other stories to tell from that example. But the best would be if those experts at IRTA could to talk to a language and media expert to let their work shine as bright and attractive as it is.

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