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Increasing Consumption of Specialty Crops by Enhancing Their Quality and Safety

Mitcham, Elizabeth
University of California - Davis
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End date
Research Objective 1. Determine how produce flavor as affected by harvest and postharvest practices influences consumer behavior and attitudes regarding consumption of specialty crops.

Research Objective 2. Determine the best rapid methods to monitor harvest maturity and assess quality changes that either directly or indirectly measure or predict eating quality based on key characteristics identified by the above consumer preference research.

Research Objective 3. Develop and test improved supply chain capabilities to deliver specialty crops with enhanced eating quality characteristics based on consumer sensory preferences.

Research Objective 4. Determine the changes in food safety risk from handling more mature or riper produce related to increased transfer potential, multiplication and/or survival of pathogens.

Extension/Outreach Objective 5. Integrate the research into commercial operations and educate commercial produce handlers and produce consumers regarding produce handling practices, maturity, ripeness and quality.

Evaluation Objective 6. Conduct formative and summative evaluations of the project activities and impacts during the course of the project to determine if changes in handling practices and buying behavior occur, identifying needed corrective actions as required.

Outputs will include consumer surveys of attitudes and preferences for produce, short courses on produce quality measurement, improving sensory quality of produce and produce food safety in two locations, workshops on a biannual basis with stakeholders, and webinars for specific produce item handling recommendations. We will determine the most effective and practical tools for assessing produce quality, especially flavor quality, and develop a model of produce shelf life based on flavor. We will test improved handling practices after harvest and determine the effect on sensory quality using trained panels and consumer taste tests.

More information
NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: This Coordinated Agricultural Project aims to help producers remove postharvest impediments that are keeping consistently great tasting produce from being marketed. Our goal is to show how fresh fruits and vegetables with enhanced flavor can be successfully handled, without compromising food safety, so as to improve consumer satisfaction and thereby change their buying habits to increase consumption. We propose to: Define consumer demographic preference differences through consumer focus groups and surveys, and show that better flavor results in quantifiable, increased consumption, Enhance flavor by developing practical methods for evaluating and ensuring exceptional quality throughout the supply chain, by eliminating over and under-ripe fruit before shipment and developing shelf life models that can be used with radio frequency tags to track produce quality, Develop and test improved supply chain capabilities to deliver enhanced flavor that is based on consumer sensory preferences, including different shipment temperatures, modified atmosphere technology, and improved packaging to allow shipment of riper products, Determine if changes in food safety risk related to increased transfer and/or survival of pathogens occur from handling more mature or riper produce, Provide commercial produce handlers and consumers with the knowledge and tools needed to deliver and evaluate quality that corresponds to great flavor. The rationale behind our project is that improved flavor will influence consumer purchase decisions to significantly increase consumption. We are taking a cross-disciplinary, systems approach by assessing consumer preferences, evaluating produce handling and quality changes, using the information during distribution, and developing and testing new technologies and procedures in real commercial conditions with industry collaborators. This project will demonstrate an approach that can be used to improve the total product quality of fruits and vegetables.

APPROACH: We will determine the factors that prevent consumers from buying more fruits and vegetables. Focus groups and surveys will be used to assess consumer attitudes and behaviors regarding consumption of fruits and vegetables. Consumer taste tests will be used to develop preference maps and relate these to sensory attributes that drive consumer behavior. We will develop and test under commercial conditions enhanced postharvest handling systems to deliver fruits and vegetables with superior eating qualities. Application of this research should increase produce sales while reducing postharvest losses to improve both efficiency and profitability at all steps of the postharvest chain. We will optimize, test and verify novel commercially viable tools to evaluate maturity and flavor quality of fruits and vegetables, including nondestructive sensing technologies for determination of maturity, ripeness stage and internal quality characteristics. It is anticipated that adoption of these improved postharvest handling and transportation technologies will remove key barriers in the supply chain to providing consumers with consistently great eating quality produce, while enhancing profitability for everyone in the supply chain. We will test and develop simple, fast and relatively inexpensive, user-friendly tools to evaluate quality; rapid, high throughput non-destructive methods to sort for maturity and ripeness stages; and validate these methods using more advanced techniques, demonstrating their accuracy and commercial viability. Novel approaches would include new packaging and shelf-life extending technologies, and improved temperature management focused on flavor quality. We will also optimize and test novel technologies for produce packaging, temperature management and ripening regulation that will allow more flavorful produce to be delivered to market successfully. Barriers to adoption of these tools will be documented throughout the produce supply chain including grower/shippers, distributors, and retailers. We will determine the affect of the changes/improvements in postharvest handling practices, such as shipment of riper fruit, on the potential for pathogens to transfer, survive or multiply on fruits and vegetables to prevent unintended increases in food safety risk. We will utilize formative and summative evaluations of the project activities and impacts during the course of the project. Formative evaluation began during preparation of this proposal with a needs assessment of the knowledge gaps previously identified. Upon commencement of the project, we will evaluate the receptiveness of commercial handlers to our rationale and approach in this project and the receptiveness of consumers to new knowledge and techniques for choosing produce with the best possible flavor. As each specific research objective yields results, we will determine through economic analysis the return on investment and by summative evaluation the reactions of the handler and consumer groups, as appropriate, to new information and tools, including adoption rates.

Funding Source
Nat'l. Inst. of Food and Agriculture
Project source
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Food Defense and Integrity
Packaging Residues
Natural Toxins
Viruses and Prions
Bacterial Pathogens
Chemical Contaminants