I know some people buy their Christmas presents in July, but soon they will be able to buy their turkey in the height of summer too. And keep it fresh until December – and possibly beyond. How? Well, it’s due to a too-good-to-be-true substance called bisin. This preservative occurs naturally in certain types of bacteria (eg, Bifodobacterium longum) that are harmless to humans. Microbiologists at the University of Minnesota discovered bisin by accident when studying organisms that populate the human gut. We are told it is safe to use. Its seemingly magical powers are said to be based on its ability to kill the bacteria that trigger decomposition in the fresh proteins found in meat, dairy, eggs and fish (but not fresh vegetables or fruit). It also prevents the growth of food-poisoning bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella and listeria.So is this end of the sell-by date? If so, is it something to be applauded – or to be concerned about? Personally, I find something unnatural and disturbing about cheese that never moulds or milk that never sours.We should, however, try to view such an invention as positive. For example, eradicating E.coli from some foodstuffs would help protect vulnerable children and old folk. It would mean that salmonella, a major culprit in the 85,000 food poisoning occurrences in 2010, could be brought under better control. Aside from health issues, there would be a huge saving in cost. The £5 billion worth of uneaten food thrown away by households each year could be greatly reduced. People who never throw away food, such as my mother-in-law, a farmer’s daughter brought up during wartime, would come into their own. That piece of roast pork that is never finished will be brought out for meals ad infinitum, I predict, should bisin be all it is cracked up to be.Potentially, then, we are looking at the Holy Grail for the food industry - which is fine, as long as it falls into the right hands. As with cryonics (in which humans and animals are put in the deep freeze so that, in theory, they can be brought back to life when medical advances permit), the concept of everlasting food raises interesting ethical issues. Bisin has already been patented, and talks are underway with food manufacturers. The preservative could be in use commercially within three years. Highfalutin science is fine for those in the food industry who can afford to license it from its inventors, but where do the smaller producers stand who cannot afford to use it? As with genetically modified (GM) foods, this advance raises questions about food monopolies. It is also fodder for conspiracy theorists, who will assume governments to be in technology’s thrall with no thought to the safety or longer-term outcomes of such scientific “progress”. Admittedly, previously controversial methods of food preservation are now kitchen cupboard essentials. Until the late 18th century, larder foods had to be preserved either with the use of salt, sugar, alcohol (vinegar or liquor) and, to an extent, spices. No one but the rich in Europe could afford to keep food on ice – which was only obtainable by transporting it from the Arctic Circle – placing it in ice houses set like bunkers into the grounds of their estates. Before the arrival of the refrigerator, it was canning that marked a revolution in food preservation, with development funded by the French government at the outset of the Napoleonic wars. After a few hiccups over safety (because of the amount of lead used in the manufacture) and the cost, canning technology became an essential. It was convenient, often cheap and transportable (when accompanied by a can opener). Canned food allowed explorers to go to extremes and conquer the Poles and Everest; it saved lives at home and on the front during both World Wars. Canning remains one of the most successful means of preserving the safety and palatability of food at an ambient temperature and canned food is an important recessionary staple. Pasteurisation, too, deserves its place in food history, as it was credited with reducing the epidemic of tuberculosis in Europe before the Second World War. More recently the quest to find new and better ways to preserve our food has only led to a challenge in our trust in scientists. There are currently 55 approved preservatives and antioxidants in use in the British food industry, most of which are chemicals. These preservatives, identified as “E” numbers, are approved by the EU. But while some are obviously natural, such as ascorbic acid (E300), which is fruit-derived vitamin C, others are approved and yet still controversial, such as sulphites (used widely in wine) and nitrites (used to cure pork and preserve its pink colour). The latter two are known allergens – though not to all consumers. Of the others, many are obscure. When I see the words orthophenyl phenol in an ingredients list, I am more inclined to tip the plate’s contents onto a pot plant than eat it. Do we want sodium ethyl p-hydroxybenzoate, gamma-tocopherol or dodecyl gallate in our food? The Food Standards Agency may deem these products benign but I believe that adding such a cocktail of chemicals to food is wrong. While individually additives have been judged safe for human consumption, there is no proof that the sheer accumulation of chemical preservatives in our food is harmless. Furthermore, the need for these chemicals seems to me to be a symptom of the problems within our food supply chain. Would we need these additives if we had a properly sourced, local food supply? My feelings become even stronger when you consider other “developments” in food manufacture. Take irradiation, in which meat or fish is exposed to ionising radiation to destroy contaminating insects and microbes. It’s warfare on your lamb cutlet, basically, and is used widely in America for preserving fresh food. The EU, responding to consumer fears over using radiation, has only permitted it to be used as a means to “clean” spices and dried herbs. It also insists that packs are clearly labelled. Irradiation has not caught on and most spices are still steam sterilised.Modified Atmosphere Packaging is also now in wide use. This lowers the amount of oxygen in a container, replacing it with nitrogen or carbon dioxide. It’s this that causes that “pop” you hear on opening a bagged salad; these gases preserve baby leaves longer than they probably take to grow (note how they tend to collapse into compost rather quickly after opening). There is much excitement, too, over nanotechnology (engineering at the molecular/atomic scale) to produce antimicrobial packaging, using spice oils and minerals that kill bacteria. This branch of science is viewed with the highest suspicion by sceptics, including the Prince of Wales, who believe that releasing such tiny particles into the atmosphere could have devastating consequences. At this stage, we do not know how bisin will be used in food preservation. Atomised in a spray, impregnated into the food or perhaps into the packaging? My fear is, and it applies to almost all but the most traditionally preserved foods such as pork and cheese, the way this might affect taste. Just as freezing eventually dissipates the flavour of food, what will happen when proteins are sprinkled with this age-defier? Unless fish is absolutely fresh, its flavour hovers in a “dusk” stage where it tastes neither newly caught nor rank. In the case of meat, it needs to mature naturally in cool surroundings in order to develop its flavour and more importantly, to be digestible.If bisin is the answer to the waste problem, and an effective deterrent to food-borne illness, its inventors may well be heading towards Sweden to collect a Nobel Prize one day soon. However, we sceptics need persuading that it won’t simply become a tool for the food industry to give us disgusting everlasting pork pies. In the meantime, perhaps the most pressing question to ask the boffins at the University of Minnesota is this one: can I add it to my anti-ageing cream?