The Japanese eat 10,000 tons of fugu each year. Here’s what makes the poisonous pufferfish so expensive.

There are over 120 species of puffer fish, and 22 different kinds are approved by the Japanese government for use in restaurants. But one is more prized, and more poisonous, than the others: torafugu, or tiger puffer fish.

Wild torafugu is often found at high-end restaurants, where it’s served as perfectly thinly sliced sashimi, deep-fried, and even used to make a hot sake called hirezake. Yamadaya has been serving puffer fish for over 100 years. Their fugu is caught in southern Japan and airlifted alive to their Tokyo restaurants.

In Haedomari Market the fugu is auctioned off using a bag and hidden hand signals. Each potential buyer puts their hand in the bag and makes their bid secretly, before a successful bidder is chosen.

When selling such a dangerous food, safety is paramount. In 2018, a supermarket accidentally sold five packets of the fish that hadn’t had the poisonous liver removed, and the town used its missile-alert system to warn residents.

The tetrodotoxin found in fugu is more toxic than cyanide, and each year about 20 people are poisoned from badly prepared fish.

It takes a lot of skill and training to prepare the fish safely and know which parts are poisonous.

The poisonous parts can vary by species, and hybrid species are appearing now that are even harder to tell apart. One of the hardest things to distinguish between can be the female fugu’s ovaries, which are extremely toxic, and the male’s testicles, which are a delicacy.

The Japanese government tightly control who can prepare fugu, and chefs need to take an extensive exam before they’re legally allowed to serve the fish. This rigorous regulation means that while the fish can be lethal, far more people die from eating oysters than fugu each year.

All of the skill and training that goes into preparing this fish increases the price. The fish is killed seconds before preparation. And while the process looks gruesome as the muscles continue to spasm, the fish is dead.

This method of killing the fish means that the meat stays fresh for longer, and at Yamadaya, the fugu is aged for 24 hours before it’s served. So what does it actually taste like?

There’s another reason tiger fugu is getting more expensive: overfishing.

Tiger puffer fish is near threatened, and in 2005 the Japanese government limited its fishing quotas and seasons. Another popular edible species across Japan, the Chinese puffer fish, has declined in population by 99.9% over the last 45 years.

Farmed versions are much cheaper, and many more affordable chain fugu restaurants are starting to appear, but the farmed version is difficult to raise, and many consumers say it doesn’t taste as good.

Wild fugu’s high price guarantees that it is safely prepared by an expert chef, and when you’re dealing with a potentially deadly fish, that price is reassuringly expensive.

With thanks to Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2019.

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Why wasabi is so expensive

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Wasabi is a small green plant in the brassica family, that means it’s related to many cheap and easy to find plants like horseradish, cabbage, or broccoli. But unlike these it’s incredibly expensive, a kilogram of fresh wasabi can cost you 25 times as much as fresh horseradish.

Because of its price the “wasabi” you’re used to is probably just a mixture of horseradish, coloring, and sweetener. These products often only have 1-5% of the real thing in.

Wasabi is known for being the hardest plant to grow commercially in the world. It can be found naturally growing alongside Japanese mountain streams has a strict set of conditions it needs to thrive.

Wasabi needs a constant supply of running spring water, it likes a shady area and rocky soil or gravel, and can only tolerate a temperature of around 8-20 degrees centigrade all year round. Too much humidity, or the wrong minerals can also cause problems for the plant and on top of all that it’s susceptible to pests and disease.

There’s one other reason you probably don’t see real wasabi products in your local supermarket or restaurant. Wasabi’s spice comes from a chemical reaction that occurs when you break down the cells, but this reaction is short lived. After 5 minutes the spicy flavour peaks but leave it for 30 minutes and almost all the flavour is gone.

All of these factors mean fake wasabi isn’t going away any time soon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in January 2019.

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Why avocados are so expensive

  • Avocado has become one of the world’s trendiest foods, but they require an extraordinary amount of costly resources and labor in order to grow.
  • Avocado prices have rocketed in recent years by up to 129%, with the average national price of a single Hass avocado reaching $2.10 in 2019, almost doubling in just one year.
  • We break down what makes avocados so expensive.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Avocado has become one of the world’s trendiest foods. As the poster child of millennial healthy eating, this superfood is now a mainstay for foodies everywhere. But have you noticed your avo on toast is costing more and more? Avocado prices have rocketed in recent years by up to 129%, with the average national price of a single Hass avocado reaching $2.10 in 2019, almost doubling in just one year. So, why are avocados so expensive?

Archaeologists in Peru have found domesticated avocado seeds buried with Incan mummies dating back to 750 BC. But it was the Aztecs in 500 BC who named it āhuacatl, which translates to “testicle.” When Spanish conquistadors swept through Mexico and Central America in the 16th century, they renamed it aguacate. The farming of aguacate developed over the next few hundred years, predominantly in Central America and South America. But consumption of the “alligator pear” outside of these regions before the late 19th century was almost nonexistent.

The commercialization of aguacate began in the early 1900s but was focused on branding avocados as a delicacy for the wealthy, like this advert in The New Yorker from 1920, which declared them as “The aristocrat of salad fruit.” But a selection of Californian growers realized that the hard-to-pronounce aguacate was off-putting for the mass market, so they formed the California Avocado Association. By the 1950s, production scale grew, and avocado prices fell to about 25 cents each. Popularity increased further with the wave of inter-American immigration in the ’60s, as Latin Americans brought their love of avocados with them to the US. But as demand increased, supply had to keep up, and the true difficulties of yielding large-scale avocado crops began to show. Avocado orchards require an extraordinary amount of costly resources in order to flourish.

Gus Gunderson: There are multiple inputs that avocados require, whether it’s water, fertilizer, pruning, pest control, the sunburn protection of trees. All those go into making your chances better of having a very good-quality crop. When we decide to plant an avocado orchard, we’ll plant trees that come from certified nurseries. We have to place our orders years in advance. On average, if we’re producing 100,000 pounds per acre, that takes about a million gallons of water, so 100 gallons per pound, so it’d be about 50 gallons per 8-ounce fruit. But that’s dependent on what mother nature will throw at you, you know, we have wind, we have intense sun. It’s really hard for a grower to manage the unmanageable things that will affect a crop.

Narrator: The surge in popularity of avocados stalled during the fat-fighting frenzy of the 1980s, with an average of only 1 pound per capita being consumed in America by 1989. The decade’s low-fat obsession drove consumers away from avocado because of its high fat content, without really understanding the nutritional truth hidden within.

Hazel Wallace: When it comes to fat in food in general, people tend to get a little bit concerned because we often hear in the media that fat isn’t good for us. But the type of fat that’s in avocados is monounsaturated fat, which is actually often deemed healthy fat or heart-healthy fat, so while there is a lot of fat in avocados, it’s actually quite good fat.

Narrator: Avocado started its meteoric comeback at the turn of the millennium, and it was helped by an unlikely political decision. In 2005, the US Department of Agriculture lifted a 90-year-old ban to allow the importation of Mexican avocados to all 50 states. Initially, this decision angered Californian growers, who feared the move could slash local growers’ sales by as much as 20%.

Harold Edwards: What actually had transpired and took place was, as that Mexican supply became much more prevalent and available, retailers got behind marketing and selling avocados, food service providers, restaurants started putting it as permanent parts of their menus, and demand started to boom because the inconsistent supply chains before were now consistent, and consumers were allowed to enjoy avocados every day of the year.

Narrator: The biggest day of the avocado calendar became Super Bowl Sunday, when it’s now estimated that almost 200 million pounds of avocados are eaten during the big game in America. But if you take a moment to consider the resources needed to produce that amount, you can start to understand avocados’ elevated prices. According to experts, it takes roughly 270 liters of water to grow a pound of avocados. So 200 million pounds could require as much as 54 billion liters of water, which means droughts or heat waves can have devastating consequences on the avocado industry. In fact, that’s exactly what’s been happening in California for the last seven years, with the Sunshine State only recently being declared drought-free in 2019, which goes a long way to explaining record avocado prices. In some countries, like Chile, avocado cultivation is being blamed for exacerbating droughts, as lush green orchards overlook dry riverbeds.

Perhaps the biggest reason for avocados’ rise to dominance is the emergence of the clean-eating lifestyle. No longer just a chip dip for special occasions, this superfood can be found in a plethora of recipes in cafés and restaurants everywhere around the world. And those who are eating them are really keen for you to know about it. Just type #avocado into Instagram, and you’ll be hit with over 10 million search results. But is the glorification of avocado justified?

Wallace: There’s quite a big hype around avocados, but it actually is quite justified when it comes to how nutrient-dense this food is. There’s not many foods that actually replicate it in terms of a nutritional profile. When it comes to calling something a superfood, I’m not really for that label. Avocados are definitely a good food to include in your diet, but like I said, you’re not really missing out if you don’t like them or if you can’t eat them for any reason. Monounsaturated fats, we can find that in things like olive oil and olive, nuts, and seeds. The vitamins and minerals, we can find that in other green vegetables, so spinach and broccoli and things like that. So there’s ways of getting those nutrients in without having avocado.

Narrator: All of this produce requires an astonishing amount of labor. Even once grown, pruned, and picked, avocados need costly distribution methods in order to be delivered fresh and ripe to far-flung corners of the world.

Gunderson: If you’re living in Philadelphia, right? You wanna buy a ripe avocado in Philadelphia? What they do is they ship green avocados from California to Philadelphia, they send them to the ripening center, they warm them up and get ethylene in them, so they all ripen, and then, when they’re moved out to the retail stores, you’re actually buying something that’s almost ready to eat or ready to eat. ‘Cause if you were to buy a green avocado that’s shipped straight from California to your market, you would have to ripen it yourself over a seven- to 10-day period, and most consumers are a little more anxious for their avocado toast than waiting 10 days. [laughs]

Narrator: With prices so high, the commodity of avocados has attracted a spate of thefts from orchards and delivery trucks worldwide. In New Zealand, armed night patrols and electric fences have been introduced after a grower in Northland had 70% of his orchard stolen. There’s even further grim reading for avocado lovers. In Michoacán, where 80% of Mexico’s avocados originate, cartels run a so-called “blood avocado” trade, violently enforcing a nonnegotiable extortion fee from farmers based on the size of their land and the weight of their crop.

Some restaurants have begun an avocado boycott, as we all weigh the ethics behind our eating habits. Experts suggest that water shortages could affect 5 billion people by 2050, and rainfall in the so-called drought belt, which includes Mexico and South America, is predicted to decline. But whilst evidence of environmental degradation is mounting, the avocado industry is still growing along with consumer demand. In certain places, the sustainability of avocado production will become untenable.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in October 2019.

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We visited the Vespa headquarters in Italy to see how the world-famous scooters are made

Vespas are more than just scooters. Over the years, they have become an icon of Italian culture and of “made in Italy” itself. They have been featured endlessly on the big screen in movies like Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” or “Roman Holiday” with Audrey Hepburn.

“Vespa is an extraordinary story,” Piaggio Group design director Marco Lambri told Business Insider. “It’s a story that was born in 1946, after the Second World War thanks to Enrico Piaggio’s intuition and the genuis of an engineer, Corradino D’Ascanio. At the time, Piaggio was building in the aeronautical and naval field and the owners decided to reconvert the company in a new field: personal mobility. After the war, Italy had to start up again. And through this vehicle, simple, cheap, and for everyone, they thought they could give a significant contribution.”

Vespa has made and sold over 1.6 million scooters all over the world. Vespa debuted in 1946 at the Rome Golf Club, and it quickly gained popularity. It went from selling 2,500 scooters in 1947 to more than 20 times that in only three years, selling 60,000 in 1950. The first models were sold for 55,000 lire, or about $245 at the time. Vespa prices were very competitive, and this, together with its sleek design, is what turned it into a success.

“Vespa was born after a strange combination of coincidences,” said Lambri. “Corradino D’Ascanio, its engineer, actually didn’t love motorbikes. He designed this Vespa based on who was supposed to drive it but without the constraits of motorbikes back then. It had to be easy to use, protective, comfortable. He designed it thinking about how he would have used it. Its name comes from Enrico Piaggio’s exclamation when he saw the first prototype. Its shape, with a narrow waist and large rear,resembled a wasp (vespa in Italian). When he said it, he said, “It looks like a wasp!” And this is how Vespa was born.”

We visited the headquarters of Vespa and the Piaggio Group in Pontedera, Italy to see how the iconic two-wheelers are made. Vespa differs from other scooters in that its body frame is made entirely of steel stampings that are welded together, which is exactly how Piaggio made its airplanes when it launched the scooter in 1946.

Aside from the Pontedera factory, Piaggio also opened a factory in Vietnam in 2013 to cater for the great demand in Asian markets.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2019.

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The rise and fall of Pan Am

Following is a transcript of the video.

Irene Kim: Pan Am was once the largest international airline in the US. In 1970 alone, it carried 11 million passengers to 86 countries worldwide. Pan Am is also known as the pioneer of multiple features of modern air travel, and it also holds cult status for its iconic aviation style. But after 60 years of flight and decades of financial turbulence, Pan Am went bust. So what happened?

Pan American Airways was founded by two US Air Force majors. It began as an airmail service between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, in 1927 and was the United States’ first scheduled international flight. Within a year, aviation visionary Juan Trippe took the controls, and Pan Am introduced its first passenger services to Havana. An ad campaign cosponsored by Pan Am and Bacardi successfully encouraged Americans to fly away from alcohol prohibition in the US to drink rum in the sun in Cuba. And Trippe quickly expanded Pan Am’s network.

By 1930, Pan Am was flying routes through most of Central and South America. Crucially, it used a fleet of flying boats, or clippers, to land aircraft on the water at destinations that didn’t have concrete runways for traditional planes. Since they flew seaplanes, Pan Am pilots wore sea captains’ uniforms, a decision that still influences aviation uniforms today. And there were far more important innovations that Pan Am developed in its early days of flight.

David Slotnick: Everything from things we take for granted today, like air traffic control and different flight procedures, different ways of forecasting the weather, of flight planning. Pan Am was the first airline to fly around the world. They actually set a few different records about that. They were the first to fly from the US across the Pacific. It was really a lot. They launched this international service that really helped define what we have today as just regular air travel.

Kim: By 1958, Pan Am offered regular flights to every continent on the planet except Antarctica, giving itself the title of “The world’s most experienced airline.” Pan Am’s modern fleet of pressurized aircraft could fly smoothly above turbulent weather, which provided a comfortable experience for passengers. Its lavish cabins were staffed by a multilingual, college-educated flight crew who served luxurious meals like steak, Champagne, and caviar.

Commercial: On October 26, 1958, Pan Am becomes the first American airline to fly jet aircraft. A Pan Am Boeing 707 streaks from New York to Paris in eight hours. The world enters the jet age.

Kim: The powerful new jet engines, which could fly nonstop over long distances, allowed Pan Am to introduce daily flights to London and Paris. And with the introduction of economy class, Pan Am opened the world of air travel to tourists, not just the rich and famous. In 1970, Pan Am carried 11 million customers over 20 billion miles. Thinking that air travel would only continue to grow, Pan Am invested half a billion dollars in a large fleet of Boeing 747 jetliners.

But this would turn out to be a big mistake.

In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an oil embargo against nations, including the US, that were supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. By the end of the embargo in March 1974, the price of oil had risen by more than 400%. This hit Pan Am harder than other airlines because of its exclusively long-haul flights, which required more fuel.

Slotnick: They were the launch customer for the Boeing 747. At the time, that was a great airplane for them to buy. That was the right choice, but the oil crisis really changed things for Pan Am. It was all of the sudden the wrong plane to have. It wasn’t the most efficient. It was flying routes that really weren’t selling that well because demand for travel was going down, and that was a very difficult time. But when they made the decision to buy the planes, who would’ve known?

Kim: While Pan Am’s operating costs skyrocketed, the economy slowed, and America’s appetite for international air travel greatly reduced, leaving Pan Am dangerously overcapacity, with huge, half-empty jets taking to the skies. As a result, between 1969 and 1976, Pan Am lost about $364 million and was estimated to be $1 billion in debt.

Pan Am had long hoped to add domestic flights within the US to its operation and even talked to a number of domestic operators, including American and United Airlines, to propose a merger. But rival airlines convinced the US Congress that Pan Am threatened to monopolize US aviation, and the Civil Aeronautics Board repeatedly denied Pan Am permission to operate domestically. But in 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act was passed into United States federal law, meaning the government could no longer control airline routes. Pan Am was now allowed to acquire a domestic system, and it hastily purchased National Airlines for $437 million.

Barnaby Conrad III: It cost a tremendous amount of money to acquire this particular airline, to get the routes. They obviously made a choice. They couldn’t build from scratch. They needed to go out and buy something. You basically had two cultures going on: Pan Am, very worldly, sophisticated, international. Then you had National Airlines. They were sort of puddle jumpers. They were considered country pilots, so there was a mix of culture that didn’t work there. Then you had different kind of aircraft, and so mechanics had never worked on certain airplanes. I think there was a mismatch there too, personnel, different airports. Just in general, it was really a small southern airline that was matching up with an international airline.

Kim: Within a year of the National Airlines purchase, Pan Am lost $18.9 million, even after selling its iconic Manhattan head office for $400 million. Pan Am continued to self-liquidate to offset its losses. In addition to trading its hotel chains, it sold its entire Pacific division to United Airlines.

But Pan Am still had a global reputation as the flagship US airline. However, this claim to fame would attract a devastating terrorist attack above the skies of Lockerbie, Scotland.

Kenny MacAskill: On the 21st of December, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow. It was bound for New York. It was never scheduled to either touch down or land in Scotland. A bomb that had been placed on board accordingly blew up over a small town in the southwest of Scotland called Lockerbie. 259 people all aboard the plane were killed, passengers and crew, and 11 citizens in the small community of Lockerbie were also killed. Pan Am were held culpable and negligent in failing to have adequate security measures. You can have some sympathy for Pan Am, because their defense, if it was a defense at the time, was simply that they had carried out the normal security measures that the entire aviation industry did. But the courts took the view that that was inadequate. They had failed to properly secure the airplane, and as a consequence, a bag had got on board that shouldn’t have been on board in the first place. But Pan Am, you can say, took the hit metaphorically as well as literally for an industry where security standards had not got up to speed.

Kim: The Lockerbie bombing cost Pan Am more than $350 million and proved to be the final blow to the once giant airline.

Just two years later, on January 8, 1991, Pan Am filed for bankruptcy.

After a bidding war, Delta Airlines purchased the majority of Pan Am for $1.4 billion, acquiring its European routes, its northeastern shuttle routes, 45 jets, its mini-hub in Frankfurt, Germany, and its flagship Pan Am Worldport terminal at JFK International Airport. Pan Am hoped to emerge from bankruptcy court, but after realizing it was losing $3 million per day, Delta stopped its cash advances. After failing to raise money from other sources, a phone call was made to Pan Am’s head office on December 4, 1991. The message was: “Shut it down.”

Conrad: Pan American Airways went bankrupt, and they shut down services. It broke people’s hearts, really, not just the people that worked for the airline, but for many other people that flew it and knew it, and it was the flagship airline of America. Pan Am, this legendary airline with its legendary logo, was the second most recognized trademark in the world at the time. A group of friends of mine actually bought those trademarks, and, in fact, I was one of the investors in that group. We bought those trademarks. Unfortunately, Charles Cobb, who was the largest investor, wanted to start the airline again, and we said, “But it didn’t work last time.” We parted ways. He bought us out. He slapped the Pan Am globe on this airline, which is sort of like putting the Pan Am globe on a Greyhound bus. It lasted a couple of months, and it crashed. All the other attempts to do something else with the trademark have failed.

Kim: But Pan Am’s legacy continues to be felt almost 30 years after its collapse. Its innovations remain the pillars of modern air travel. Its brand style has survived throughout the decades as an iconic mid-century fashion statement, with products featuring its sleek, retro logo still being sold. And the Pan Am lifestyle is still romanticized in TV and movies. But the airline itself remains grounded.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2020.

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