No wreckage of Malaysia flight MH370 found, says airline

A Vietnamese official said on Monday that a search had failed to locate objects seen floating in the Gulf of Thailand that were first thought to be from Malaysia Airlines flight 370.
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Doan Huu Gia, chief of Vietnam’s search and rescue co-ordination centre, said that six planes and seven ships were sent to search for wreckage in the area but had so far found nothing.

The objects were sighted on Sunday, shortly before nightfall.

Also, officials in Kuala Lumpur insisted on Monday that the sighting of what might be wreckage was inconclusive.

“We have to wait to confirm,” an official said.

The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 disappeared with 239 people, including six Australians and two New Zealanders, on board on Saturday.

The plane lost contact with ground controllers between Malaysia and Vietnam after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing.

More than two days after flight MH370 went missing, its disappearance remains a mystery.

Investigators suspect the aircraft might have disintegrated midair, partly because of the inability to find a concentrated pattern of debris.

But investigators have not ruled out any possibility, including terrorism.

The search area was expanded on Sunday after Malaysian defence officers reviewed radar logs indicating the plane may have turned around in flight, which would indicate it was experiencing some difficulty.

But the pilots did not send a distress call.

Airline executives and Malaysian aviation and defence officials were scheduled to brief the media at noon Malaysian time (3pm Sydney/Melbourne time).

Failed to board

Four passengers on flight 370 failed to board after checking in their luggage, which raised further suspicion about the passengers after the plane disappeared.

But Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation chief Azaharuddin Abdul Rahman told Fairfax Media the passengers’ luggage was offloaded from the plane before it left Kuala Lumpur airport in the early hours of Saturday morning.

He said the luggage was screened and found not to contain anything suspicious and was then returned to the passengers in the terminal.

“We followed standard operating procedures to remove the baggage of those who didn’t turn up,” he said.

“There was nothing suspicious [about those passengers],” he said.

The identities of the four passengers have not been made public.

Debris sighted

A Vietnamese plane reportedly sighted the debris in the waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

The Vietnamese Information Ministry made the announcement on its website on Sunday, saying the objects appeared to be a fragment of an aircraft’s tail and an interior door.

The objects were located about 90 kilometres south of the island of Tho Chu, in the same area where the plane could have gone down if it did not alter its route, a possibility that is being investigated. It is in the same area where oil slicks were spotted on Saturday.

The discovery came shortly before nightfall, when air operations were cancelled until Monday morning.

The report was transmitted to boats in the area that are participating in search and rescue operations.

China, the United States, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, shortly to be joined by Australia, are co-operating in the search.

Vietnamese authorities searching waters for the missing jet spotted an object on Sunday that they suspected was one of the plane’s doors, as international intelligence agencies joined the investigation into two passengers who boarded the aircraft with stolen passports.

The state-runThanh Niennewspaper earlier cited Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of staff of Vietnam’s army, as saying searchers in a low-flying plane had spotted an object suspected of being a door from the missing jet. It is unclear at this stage if this is the same door mentioned on the Vietnamese Information Ministry’s website.

“From this object, hopefully [we] will find the missing plane,” General Tuan said.Thanh Niensaid two ships from the maritime police were heading to the site.

‘Likely to have disintegrated’

“The fact that we are unable to find any debris so far appears to indicate that the aircraft is likely to have disintegrated at around 35,000 feet,” said a senior source, who is involved in the preliminary investigations in Malaysia.

If the plane had plunged intact from such a height, breaking up only on impact with the water, search teams would have expected to find a fairly concentrated pattern of debris, said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak publicly on the investigation.

Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over many square kilometres. If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.

The missing plane apparently fell from the sky at cruising altitude in fine weather, and the pilots were either unable or had no time to send a distress signal – unusual circumstances under which a modern jetliner operated by a professional airline would crash.

Malaysia’s air force chief, Rodzali Daud, said radar indicated that the plane may have turned back, but did not give further details on which direction it went or how far it might have veered off course.

“We are trying to make sense of this,” Mr Daud said at a news conference. “The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back, and in some parts this was corroborated by civilian radar.”

Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said pilots were supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if the plane made a U-turn.

“From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per se, so we are equally puzzled,” he said.

Stolen passports

Authorities were checking on the identities of the two passengers who boarded the plane with stolen passports. On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight’s manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.

“I can confirm that we have the visuals of these two people on CCTV,” acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said at a news conference late on Sunday, adding that the footage was being examined.

“We have intelligence agencies, both local and international, on board.”

Mr Hishammuddin declined to give further details, saying it may jeopardise the investigation.

“Our focus now is to find the aircraft,” he said, adding that finding the plane would make it easier for authorities to investigate any possible foul play.

Interpol confirmed that at least two stolen passports used by passengers on the plane were registered in its databases. It said no one had checked the databases, but added that most airlines and countries did not usually check for stolen passports.

Mr Hishammuddin said only two passengers had used stolen passports, and that earlier reports that the identities of two others were under investigation were not true.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said the US was looking into the stolen passports issue, but that investigators had reached no conclusions.

In addition to the plane’s sudden disappearance, which experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, the stolen passports have strengthened concerns about terrorism as a possible cause. Al-qaeda militants have used similar tactics to try to disguise their identities.

Still, other possible causes would seem just as likely at this stage, including a catastrophic failure of the plane’s engines, extreme turbulence, or pilot error or even suicide. Establishing what happened with any certainty will need data from flight recorders and a detailed examination of any debris, something that will take months if not years.

European authorities on Saturday confirmed the names and nationalities of the two stolen passports: one was an Italian-issued document bearing the name Luigi Maraldi, the other Austrian under the name Christian Kozel. Police in Thailand said Mr Maraldi’s passport was stolen on the island of Phuket last July.

A telephone operator on a China-based KLM hotline on Sunday confirmed that “Maraldi” and “Kozel” were both booked to leave Beijing on a KLM flight to Amsterdam on March 8. Mr Maraldi was then to fly to Copenhagen, Denmark, on KLM on March 8, and Mr Kozel to Frankfurt, Germany, on March 8.

She said that, since the pair booked the tickets through China Southern Airlines, she had no information on where they bought them.

Having onward reservations to Europe from Beijing would have meant the pair, as holders of EU passports, would not have needed visas for China.

Meanwhile, the multinational search for the missing plane was continuing. A total of 34 aircraft and 40 ships have been deployed to the area by Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States, in addition to Vietnam’s fleet.

Vietnamese air force jets spotted two large oil slicks on Saturday, but it was unclear whether they were linked to the missing plane.

Two-thirds of the jet’s passengers were Chinese. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.

After more than 30 hours without contact with the aircraft, Malaysia Airlines told family members they should “prepare themselves for the worst”, Hugh Dunleavy, the commercial director for the airline, told reporters.

A team of American experts was en route to Asia to be ready to assist in the investigation into the crash. The team includes accident investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, as well as technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the safety board said in a statement.

Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all Chinese teenagers.

Meanwhile, the US team confirmed the floating object spotted by a Singaporean aircraft on Sunday is not linked to the Malaysia Airlines plane.

In this handout provided by the U.S. Navy, a U.S. Navy MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopter from Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 78, Det 2, assigned to the guided-missile Destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG 91), lands aboard Pinckney during a crew swap before returning on task in the search and rescue for the missing Malaysian airlines flight MH370 on March 9, 2013 at sea in the Gulf of Thailand Photo: Getty Images

Dato’Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, Director General of DCA, briefs the media that Malaysia Airlines fight MH370 is still missing. Photo: Getty Images

The delegate of relatives of the passenger onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 issues a joint statement to media at the entrance of relative area at Lido Hotel on March 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

Ignatius Ong from Malaysia Airline attend a press conference on March 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

Ignatius Ong (Center) from Malaysia Airline speak during a press conference on March 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

People At Beijing International Airport Wait For Malasia Airlines Flight MH370. Police and airport staffs are on the alert in case of emergency. BEIJING, CHINA – MARCH 8: Police and airport personnel mill about at Beijing International Airport March 8, 2014 in Beijing, China Photo: Getty Images

Relatives of passengers onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 leave after applying for their Chinese passports to be ready to travel to the crash site as the search continues for the missing Malaysian airliner on March 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

Joshua Law Kok Hwa, Malaysia Airlines’ regional senior vice president of China speaks to media at Lido Hotel as the search continues for the missing Malaysian airliner on March 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

Hugh Dunleavy, (Center) Head of commercial – Malaysia Airlines speaks to media at Lido Hotel on March 9, 2014 in Beijing, China. Photo: Getty Images

PHOTOS: Crowds welcome luxury liner Celebrity Solstice

Source: Newcastle Herald
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IT CAME, it honked, it went.

Newcastle residents woke on Sunday to the sound of the largest ship to ever enter the harbour blasting a greeting as it passed Nobbys for the first time.

The 317-metre luxury cruise ship Celebrity Solstice made a whirlwind visit to the city, arriving from Brisbane about 7am before departing for Sydney at 6pm.

Newcastle made the most of it: the foreshore was bustling early as onlookers picked out the best spots to watch the ship come in, while blue skies and sunshine acted as the perfect welcome mat.

Lord mayor Jeff McCloy even donned the mayoral robes to greet passengers as they disembarked.

‘‘It was bloody amazing,’’ he said.‘‘I couldn’t believe the amount of locals along the foreshore who came out to welcome the ship in, and I couldn’t believe the reception we got from the passengers.

‘‘I think I posed for about 300 photos with them. They were really delighted with the reception we gave them. I met people from all over the world who said they never got that sort of reception in Brisbane or in Sydney.’’

Only six years old, the luxury superliner has plenty to boast about including 18 retail shops, a half-acre of manicured lawns on the top deck, 10 restaurants, a 1300-capacity theatre, and more.

Despite that, the majority of the ship’s 2800 passengers had disembarked by 9am, and the sight of full shuttle busses dispatching bleary-eyed tourists to destinations like Nelson Bay and Pokolbin was enough to have the city’s tourism officials salivating.

Will Creedon, the chairman of Tourism Hunter, said the visit was exciting because of the potential it hinted at.

‘‘Newcastle Ports have been really aggressive and dynamic in the last 12 months in how they deal with the costs associated with bringing these ships here to make Newcastle a more attractive place to visit, like Brisbane and Sydney,’’ he said.

‘‘You look at the number of passengers on board, if we can get more of these ships here, that’s the population of Cessnock in 10 trips.’’

With a return visit booked for the same time next year, the city’s officials are bullish in their assessment of Newcastle’s chances of becoming a regular stopover.

On board the ship, Newcastle City Council’s manager of tourism and economic services, Jan Ross said yesterday: ‘‘I know we’ll be seeing many more ships from all over the globe in the future.’’

Celebrity Solstice enters the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

Cruise ship Celebrity Solstice enters the Port of Newcastle. Glen Coulam paddles past. Picture Darren Pateman

Celebrity Solstice enters the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

People line the breakwall to watch cruise ship Celebrity Solstice enter the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

People on Horseshoe Beach to watch cruise ship Celebrity Solstice enter the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

Celebrity Solstice enters the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

Celebrity Solstice enters the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

People line the breakwall to watch cruise ship Celebrity Solstice enter the Port of Newcastle at sunrise. Picture: Darren Pateman

Cruise ship Celebrity Solstice docked in Newcastle Harbour. Picture Darren Pateman

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

The Celebrity Solstice, 317 metres long, arriving in Newcastle, as seen from Stockton. Picture: Andrew Frith

Celebrity Solstice taken from the apex of the Stockton Bridge. Picture Kelly Loftberg

Photo by Teresa Finch

The main dining hall on the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

On board the Celebrity Solstice. The Lawn Club area with actual grass gets a watering. Picture: Simone De Peak

On board the Celebrity Solstice. The Lawn Club area with actual grass. Picture: Simone De Peak

On board the Celebrity Solstice. The Lawn Club area with actual grass. Picture: Simone De Peak

On board the Celebrity Solstice. The Persian Garden Area with heated tiled lounges in the Aqua Spa. Picture: Simone De Peak

The gym with a view on board the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

The adults only solarium with indoor pool on the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Newcastle views from the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

The Sky Lounge room of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Ron Sorensen of Newcastle Port Corporation presents Capt. Zisis Taramas with a plaque on board the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Views from the Sky Lounge of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Views from the Sky Lounge of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Views from the Sky Lounge of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Views from the Sky Lounge of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

View of Newcastle from the deck of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

A happy dolphin meeting people as they disembark off the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

The balcony areas of the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Cleaners working dockside on the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

Passengers disembarking from the Celebrity Solstice. Picture: Simone De Peak

The Celebrity Solstice leaving Newcastle, Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship set a record as being the largest ship to ever berth in the port. Picture Eddie O’Reilly

The Celebrity Solstice leaving Newcastle, Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship set a record as being the largest ship to ever berth in the port. Picture Eddie O’Reilly

The Celebrity Solstice leaving Newcastle, Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship set a record as being the largest ship to ever berth in the port. Picture Eddie O’Reilly

The Celebrity Solstice leaving Newcastle, Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship set a record as being the largest ship to ever berth in the port. Picture Eddie O’Reilly

The Celebrity Solstice leaving Newcastle, Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship set a record as being the largest ship to ever berth in the port. Picture Eddie O’Reilly

The Celebrity Solstice leaving Newcastle, Sunday March 9, 2014. The ship set a record as being the largest ship to ever berth in the port. Picture Eddie O’Reilly

317 metres – The ship’s length. It is the largest ship ever to visit Newcastle.

13,000 – The number of meals prepared each day on board the ship. It takes 162 chefs to prepare all that food.

7.6 metres – The height of the Ficus Benjamina ‘wintergreen’ tree suspended in the middle of the ship’s 13-deck high atrium.

2800 – That’s how many bottles of wine are stuffed into the ship’s two-storey, floor-to-ceiling glass wine tower in the main restaurant.

277– The number of solar panels on board. Enough to power all the guest elevators.

$2419 – That’s what one ticket for a balcony room on a 14-night cruise from Sydney to Auckland will set you back, including a flight back home, according to cruiseabout爱杭州同城论坛m.

Protests grip Ukraine as Putin defends Crimea actions

Ukrainian marines (2nd & 3rd from left) look over the wall of their Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21 kilometres from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty Ukrainian marines (2nd & 3rd from left) look over the wall of their Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21 kilometres from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty
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Ukrainian marines (2nd & 3rd from left) look over the wall of their Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21 kilometres from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Ukrainian marines (2nd & 3rd from left) look over the wall of their Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21 kilometres from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty

A woman walks past Russian forces near the entrance of the Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21km from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty

A woman walks past Russian forces near the entrance of the Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21km from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty

A woman walks past Russian forces near the entrance of the Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21km from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty

A woman walks past Russian forces near the entrance of the Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye 21km from Simferopol, where approximately 1000 Ukrainian marines are trapped. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Yula Yavorska listens to speeches at Shevchenko Park during a pro-Ukrainian rally, in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Yula Yavorska listens to speeches at Shevchenko Park during a pro-Ukrainian rally, in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Yula Yavorska listens to speeches at Shevchenko Park during a pro-Ukrainian rally, in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Yula Yavorska listens to speeches at Shevchenko Park during a pro-Ukrainian rally, in Simferopol, Crimea. Photo: Kate Geraghty

Ukraine crisis: Latest news

Simferopol: Thousands rallied across Ukraine in rival demonstrations that turned violent when pro-Russian activists attacked a protest on the Black Sea peninsula, as Russian soldiers tightened their grip across Crimea.

Both Britain and Germany have urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in his soldiers as divisions deepened across the region in the lead-up to Sunday’s referendum on Crimea’s future.

Describing the referendum, which asks residents to vote on Crimea joining Russia, as ”illegal” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the vote would violate both Ukraine’s constitution and international law.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron also called Mr Putin on Sunday, urging him to ”de-escalate the situation in Ukraine and to support the formation of a contact group that could lead to direct talks between the governments of Russia and Ukraine”.

His Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told the BBC that if Russian troops moved beyond Crimea into Western Ukraine it would cause ”far-reaching trade, economic and financial consequences” and ”bring the great danger of a real shooting conflict”.

Mr Putin, however, insists he has the right to protect Russian interests and the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.

In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, there were pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrations, with protesters on both sides grim-faced and fearful of what may lay ahead for their homeland.

Holding signs portraying Russian leader Vladimir Putin as Hitler, a large rally supporting Ukrainian unity gathered in Shevchenko Park to celebrate the birth 200 years ago of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko.

Joining hands to ”show the world that Ukrainians and Crimeans are one”, the crowd cheered as speaker after speaker condemned the referendum.

”Putin puts his army here and says he wants to protect Russian people,” said one speaker, Nashida. ”I am an ethnic Russian and I know he does not care at all about me, he only cares about his own political position.”

Protester Yula Yavorska spoke of the fear she felt about the future as she stood with her son in the near-freezing spring air.

”When we are all here together I feel strong, but when I am alone at home I feel so afraid – we are now under Russian occupation, the government of Crimea is against us and I do not know what will happen in the future, for my family or Crimea.”

As a convoy of cars flying the Russian flag drove past the demonstration, the protesters shouted ”Shame, Shame”, but unlike a similar protest 80 kilometres away in Sevastopol, where pro-Russian militants and Cossacks attacked a demonstration with whips, there was no violence.

Across town, pro-Russian demonstrators gathered at the monument to Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol, as reports emerged that Russia was sending in reinforcements to replace the troops already stationed at military barracks and installations around Crimea.

Tensions were high in Yevpatoria, where Russian soldiers had issued an ultimatum to Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile regiment commanders to surrender their weapons by Sunday night local time, their base surrounded by Russian troops.

One protester, Ivan, summed up the feeling of many who were against both the referendum and the presence of Russian soldiers in Crimea: ”I don’t know where this will end – but I know if we go with Russia we’ll go downhill, we will be regressing.”

Healthy look at a mental feast

Photo: Ryann Cooley Photo: Ryann Cooley
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When it comes to dining, most people trust their tastebuds. Food, after all, is food and there’s no fooling that hardwired, primeval sense of taste or flavour.

Or is there?

To put this popular notion to the test, food scientists at Monash University designed a short but telling experiment. A sensory panel of four tasters was presented with exactly the same recipe for a chicken mango curry. The meal was served randomly in four ways: on a large square plate, a normal-sized circular plate, a small bowl and in takeaway foil.

Although two chefs cooked the meal, the tasters were provided with food prepared by only one chef, leading the tasters to believe there might be some subtle nuances in flavour.

The results were intriguing. Despite the food being identical, all four participants reported distinctive variations in the meal’s smell, taste, flavour, appearance, texture and after-taste.

Ratings of appearance and smell were weakest in the case of the takeaway foil and strongest for the normal-size round plate. Most tasters reported that the curry on the large square plate was bland, although they felt it had the most agreeable texture. In contrast, the food dished up in the small bowl was deemed to have the strongest and longest-lasting flavour.

The sample size was too small to be statistically analysed. but it seemed clear enough that something made the same food taste different when presented in varying ways.

“This simple experiment clearly shows that our oral sensors are influenced by what we observe,” says Monash University dietetic researcher Ricardo Costa. “For example, the fact that curry in the small bowl tasted strongest suggests a more concentrated sensation in response to food presented in a more condensed fashion.”

The findings accord with a burgeoning body of scientific research demonstrating that the human senses interact and combine to form an overall impression of experiences. Taste is no exception. So the sounds we hear, and the shapes and colours we observe, markedly influence the flavour of food and drink.

“It is an area of research only flourishing in recent times,” says Dr Costa. Research, he adds, is now beginning to explore the influence of cutlery texture on flavour – such as whether a fork or spoon is made of plastic or metal.

The same principle applies to drink. Water presented in a cool-coloured glass, such as pale blue, may seem more thirst quenching. But in a yellow glass, for instance, the water may taste less refreshing.

“Certain colours are associated with events in nature – for instance, red or yellow with fire, blue with cool water, green with refreshing leaves. Bright and vivid colours, on the other hand, signify dangerous poisons, perhaps,” Dr Costa explains. “This may predispose people to having a particular perception before consuming a meal or drink.”

Working in tandem

The sense of taste refers to five main qualities: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – a fondness for savoury substances triggered by certain amino acids and nucleotides, says Deakin University sensory scientist Russell Keast. “We know the senses work together to form a perceived sense of flavour – so there is plenty of opportunity for one sense to influence the perceptions experienced from a second sense.”

For example, adding a strawberry aroma to a sucrose solution makes it taste sweeter than sucrose alone. “If we are concerned about excess consumption of sugar, this type of information allows us to reduce the level of sugar while maintaining sweetness, which we all like,” Professor Keast says.

People also need to be able to separate the pleasure derived from sweet foods from the quality of sweetness, he says. “They are independent systems and can easily be disentangled from each other.”

The context in which a meal or drink is consumed also influences flavour. “I like a beer after mowing the lawn, but if given the same beer when I awake at 5am, I don’t like it, even though the beer is the same,” Professor Keast says.

Food scientists have also identified something called the dose-response effect. “A pinch of salt in a bucket of water cannot be tasted,” he says. “But the same quantity of salt added to a stew really heightens the flavours, while again the same quantity sprinkled on one potato chip would be excessively salty and unpleasant.”

Subjectivity

Taste itself is just physiology, says Baker Institute biochemist Merlin Thomas. “Taste molecules bind to taste receptors, setting off nerve impulses that go to the brain, and so forth,” Professor Thomas says.

But the ways we interpret this taste, he says, are determined by factors including age, gender, past experiences and associations, mood, the setting and whether or not one is hungry. Even music can play a part.

“Although shape, colour and texture don’t affect physiology directly, they influence our interpretation of these impulses,” Professor Thomas says.

It is well known, he points out, that when participants take part in the same taste test but in complete darkness, or wearing tinted lenses, remarkably different results are obtained.

Expectations

Expectations also play a crucial role in how flavour is experienced, says Cambridge, Massachusetts-based food author Jeff Potter.

“Food shapes, colours and textures have in common the perception of how what we expect something to be lines up with our sensory input,” Mr Potter says. “For instance, if you’re looking at an apple and expecting it to be crisp, a little tart and juicy, and instead you get something mealy – well, it’s not enjoyable,” he says. “That’s not to say things that crumble and are mealy always taste bad. If you were biting into baked potato and it was crisp – instead of having that fall-apart texture related to mealy – that’d be bad too.”

People are satisfied when foods conform to their expected taste, smell and texture, he says, but may be surprised when they are different. “Sometimes that surprise can be fun and novel, and some high-end restaurants pull this off with the modernist culinary stuff.”

British celebrity chef Hestor Blumenthal, famed for experimenting with a range of dishes in his restaurant The Fat Duck, springs to mind.

“But usually it’s the opposite,” Mr Potter says. “And we’re disappointed when we don’t get what we’re expecting.”

Mr Potter describes a landmark study in which scientists altered the colour of some 70 foods. With the exception of bacon, subjects found that odours appealed more when colour was “normal” for that dish.

In the US, some high schools conduct simple experiments on food and perception. In one, orange dye is added to clear soda and compared with orange soda. “Obviously the clear soda and orange dye shouldn’t have a fruity orange taste, but the colour suggestion can be strong,” Mr Potter says.

Chemicals

Experiments on taste began in the 1930s, when a scientist at the chemicals company DuPont accidentally spilled a compound called phenylthiocarbamide on his lab bench and a co-worker complained of experiencing a bitter taste.

“Like any good scientist, the chemist started giving samples to various people, and watching what happened,” Mr Potter explains. The research found that one in four people tasted no bitterness.

More recent work concludes that people divide into two groups: super-tasters who find phenylthiocarbamide unbearably bitter and others who find it less bitter or not bitter at all.

“There are other compounds, such as caffeine and nicotine, that are chemically similar to phenylthiocarbamide and which some people find bitterer. As a result, they tend to avoid such substances.”

It seems super-tasters have inherited certain characteristics from their parents, Mr Potter says. “The percentage breakdowns differ by ethnicity and gender.”

White females, for instance, have a 35 per cent chance of being super-tasters, while white males have a 10 per cent chance. Asians, sub-Saharan Africans and indigenous Americans are much likelier to be super-tasters.

Feeling the heat

Temperature also plays a crucial role in the way food tastes. Take a vanilla cake. “The recipe says set your oven at 175 degrees and bake for 25 minutes,” Mr Potter says. “Why can’t you set it at, say, 300 degrees and bake it in just 10 minutes?”

For vanilla cake, certain heat-dependent chemical reactions are needed, such as getting the water in the batter to steam up or getting the baking powder to generate air bubbles to make the cake light and airy.

“We also want to ensure other chemical reactions don’t occur at temperatures higher than 175 degrees,” Mr Potter adds. “So, if you set your oven at 300 degrees, such reactions would ruin the taste.”

Links

Learn about Ricardo CostaFollow the exploits of Russell KeastDelve into Jeff Potter’s book Cooking for Geeks Tuck into top-notch tucker 

VCAA linksVELS Science Levels 4-6VCE Food and Technology Study Design

Please send bright ideas for new topics to Peter Spinks

Drought, funding hurting Australia’s ‘food bowl to Asia’ dream

Between a rock and a hard place: Australia’s food industry says funding issues are making it difficult to create high-value, high-quality exports. Photo: Steve HynesAustralia’s lofty ambitions to become a “food bowl” for a rapidly growing middle-class in Asia are in danger of falling at the farm gate due to the country’s harsh, drought-prone climate and a lack of investment in agricultural innovation.
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The federal government has touted the food bowl plan as one way of diversifying the economy as a decade-long mining boom that brought the country riches wanes.

But the industry says it has been left between a rock and a hard place – with state grants denied and foreign investment blocked, it lacks the funding needed to transform Australia into a provider of high-quality, value-added produce.

“There are many companies that are struggling,” said Peter Schutz, the chairman of the federal government-funded Food Innovation Australia. “We need innovation right through the supply chain; not just products, but logistics, packaging and distribution, and we need funding for that.”

The idea of transforming a swathe of the sparsely populated Northern Territory into a food bowl for Asia has been around since the 1950s.

Not long after coming to power last year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott commissioned a policy paper into the development of northern Australia, a region twice the size of Alaska, to reach its goal of doubling food production by 2050.

The theory goes that the tropical north of the country not only gets plenty of rain, but is a stone’s throw from a multiplying middle class in Asia that is increasingly adopting a westernised diet.

The reality is that there’s little infrastructure and little irrigation, undermining attempts at mass production of soft commodities.

A Korean-owned sugar mill closed down in 2007 because there wasn’t enough of the crop being produced in the region, while experiments in peanuts, sorghum, rice and cotton have all failed.

Even in its top exporting businesses of wheat and meat, where it ranks among the world leaders,Australia is challenged by both drought and tougher competition from India, Brazil and the United States.

It also simply can’t produce enough of any one commodity to make mass exports of staples viable long-term.

Added-value

Australia’s best opportunities for exports to Asia will come in value-added, high quality, certified safe produce to the burgeoning middle class.

China currently accounts for only 4 per cent of global middle class spending, but is forecast by theBrookings Institution to catapult up the global rankings to overtake the United States as the largest single middle class market by 2020.

It will account for nearly half of the global increase in food demand by 2050, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural, Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), with the real value of food consumption in China to double between 2009 and 2050.

“They are starting to move toward a western type of diet, but they are only interested in high value products and that’s where we could have an advantage,” said Schutz.

The recent hotly contested bidding war for Australia’s Warrnambool Cheese and Butter Factory Company Holdings, which left Canada’s Saputo in majority control, was due in large part to Asian demand for the dairy producer’s high-tech milk extract lactoferrin.

Warrnambool last month reported it doubled its first half profits, going some way to justifying the rich price Saputo paid to beat off rivals.

But Warrnambool is one of the few success stories.

While agriculture accounts for around 2.4 per cent of gross domestic product at around $50 billion, and exports have surged in recent years, the food industry is comprised almost entirely of small to medium-sized enterprises lacking a cohesive plan.

“Aggregation, machinery, use of technology is critically important,” said Doug Ferguson, a Sydney-based partner at KPMG who leads the company’s China business practice.

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd estimates that $600 billion in additional capital will be needed between now and 2050 to generate growth and profitability in Australian agriculture.

That funding is not readily forthcoming.

Warrnambool Chief Executive David Lord points out that government support for agriculture has not matched previous financial support for heavy manufacturing industries in his company’s home state of Victoria.

The federal government rejected a plea from Australian soft drink bottler Coca-Cola Amatil for a $25 million grant that would go towards a factory upgrade for its struggling SPC Ardmona fruit cannery.

CCL eventually received a smaller grant from the Victoria state government but its difficulties were underscored this month when it posted its worst full-year result for 20 years.

Schutz said Food Innovation Australia’s planned $16 million funding over the next four years has been frozen since Abbott’s conservative coalition won the election in September.

The future of the group, established last year by the former Labor government to accelerate commercially driven collaboration and innovation in the food and beverage industry, is unlikely to be decided until after the May federal budget.

Foreign funding

KPMG’s Ferguson said foreign investors with deep pockets are the only realistic option to meet the food industry’s funding requirements. But Chinese investors circling dairy and cattle businesses have been deterred by Australia’s tough laws on foreign investment.

“There’s concern around the inconsistent treatment for state-owned enterprises,” Ferguson said. “There’s also a pretty big difference in the approval limits for the US, New Zealand, and soon to beKorea, investors.”

Private investment deals from those countries are only referred to the secretive Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) when they are above $1 billion. In contrast, the bar for FIRB approvals for Chinese multinationals is just A$48 million, and due to drop even further to $15 million. All deals involving state-owned enterprises must go through FIRB, regardless of the size of the deal.

Even US investors can expect heavy scrutiny of major deals. In December, the federal government’s blocked a $2.8 billion takeover of GrainCorp by US agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) on the grounds of national interest.

During the feverish bidding war for Warrnambool, much was made of the local credentials of bidders Bega Cheese and Murray Goulburn Coop over their Canadian rival.

In the end, Lord said, only one thing mattered.

“Saputo made it clear they had the financial capacity to invest for innovation,” he said. “That’s clearly very attractive for the business.”

Reuters