On a rainy day in June, the exhibition halls inside Tokyo Big Sight were brightly lit, accentuating the metallic gleam of the high-tech equipment on display at the Japan Food Machinery Manufacturers’ Association expo.
The atmosphere was slightly disorienting, a cross between a county science fair and a car show — complete with young women in brightly colored skimpy costumes who demonstrated the products with rehearsed enthusiasm. I made my way through clusters of black-suited businessmen, past fast-and-furious mechanized slicers, mammoth mixers, and giant defrosters built by companies with masculine-sounding names ending in “x”: Dremax, Mondomix and Radix.
FOOMA is quite possibly the nerdiest trade show I’ve ever experienced — and I am no stranger to the nerdy side of food and beverage production. Despite the event’s seemingly narrow appeal, nearly 100,000 people braved the stormy weather to attend this year. My editor, when proposing the assignment, had made a jokey comparison with Comiket, the massive manga market that attracts half a million visitors to each session. Perhaps for this reason, I had arrived expecting to see robots and instant-meal preparation contraptions — real-life manifestations of the futuristic visions conjured by the avant-garde architecture group Archigram or artist Kenji Yanobe.
The robots were there, but mostly in the form of automated arms that can be programed to slide heavy trays into specific slots of a rack, or to sugar-glaze designs on the surface of a freshly baked pastry with admirable precision.
Near the entrance, a display by pump manufacturer Heishin had created a buzz. The company was showing off the latest model of an apparatus that could make candy-colored “caviar” filled with liquids such as fruit juice, olive oil or chilled broth. The process, called spherification, involves mixing the liquid with a solution of sodium alginate and dripping it into a bath of calcium chloride, which forms a thin membrane around the substance. First popularized by Spanish chef Ferran Adria, the technique is now trickling down into the mainstream; according to sales manager Terufumi Suga, Heishin’s spherification pumps, which cost ¥7-10 million, are being used by yogurt producers and sweets manufacturers in Japan and internationally. Look for it in sodas next.
The majority of the equipment on display, however, concerned the more prosaic aspects of food processing: cutting, mixing, assembling and, above all, cleaning. The busiest booths featured conveyer-belt dishwashers that resembled miniature car washes, sterilization chambers and magnetized pipe-cleaning systems. For industrial food producers, the challenges of preventing health hazards increase exponentially, a fact that is often taken for granted.
The thought returned to me as I headed toward the exit, beyond the rows of exhibitors selling full-body coveralls, hairnets and old-fashioned brooms. Scrubbing floors is a dirty and unglamorous job, but everyone’s got to do it.
Melinda Joe is an American food and drinks writer in Tokyo. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaJoe.