Jul 16, 2015
Breeding, energy, shelf life will drive the future of storage

What might produce storage look like in the future? Several experts shared their thoughts with VGN.

Randy Beaudry, a horticulture professor at Michigan State University, said storage technology has pushed produce about as hard as it can be pushed. If there’s going to be another “sea change” – like there was 60 years ago, when the industry shifted from refrigeration to controlled atmosphere (CA) – the crops themselves will have to be altered. Breeding for characteristics that improve plant storability will drive the next phase of storage. Traits like firmness, for example, might take precedence over flavor and texture.

There will always be technological improvements, but all such advances will cover a “slimmer slice of the pie,” since they’ll be limited by the nature of the plants stored. The industry has gotten very, very good at storing apples, for example, but it can’t make them last forever. They weren’t bioengineered to do that, Beaudry said.

“The technologies that have been developed in the last 50 to 100 years are being applied in almost every situation they can be,” he said. “1-MCP has reached the extent of its utility. We’ve explored all the CA options that are there.”

The industry has discovered the commodities that do well in CA storage – apples, pears and cabbage, for example – and those that don’t. It’s figured out that apples are the only crop practically affected by 1-MCP’s ethylene suppression. 1-MCP works on other crops like tomatoes, but the tomato industry doesn’t rely on long-term storage the way the apple industry does.

As for areas where technological improvements could be made, Beaudry mentioned packaging and growth regulators. He also sees improvements coming in monitoring. Improved sensors could give packers and shippers a better idea of what’s happening to their product in storage, to better predict its future quality.

Sylvia Blankenship, a postharvest physiologist at North Carolina State University, said energy-saving cold storage is needed, or storage powered by alternate means.

She’d like to see someone invent a way to slow plant metabolism, similar to what cold temperature does but more internally.

“Remember the old science fiction movies where people were put into suspended states to travel long distances in space?” she asked. “We need to learn how to make fruit do that.”

She also would like to see a selective method developed to stop fungal growth in storage, a major cause of decay. Produce resistant to spores would be a big step.

SmartFresh (1-MCP) is wonderful on fruits that respond to ethylene, but the industry needs to study the fruits that don’t respond to ethylene and try to figure out what triggers their ripening, softening and other factors, Blankenship said.

Jennifer DeEll, a hort crops researcher with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, listed four trends to watch for in the future.

1. Dynamic controlled atmosphere storage enables use of extreme low-oxygen CA conditions by regular monitoring of produce to check for anaerobic stress (versus typical CA conditions, simply considered “safe” for each apple cultivar from all orchards every season). The fruit’s biological response to stressful storage conditions will be measured in relation to determining optimal CA conditions.

2. Energy costs should be reduced – by having better insulation in storage rooms, secondary refrigerant and fan cycling based on demand, energy management control systems and real-time energy data.

3. Food safety is becoming more of an issue. Can storage rooms be cleaned? Fully sanitized? The industry should move from room interiors of sprayed-on foam polyurethane toward smooth, inter-locking panels.

4. Direct connections or electronic updates sent to cellphones will help operators know what’s happening in their storage. They’ll have immediate access to storage room controls and be able to monitor or change programs from anywhere.

Yvonne Harz-Pitre, worldwide communications manager for AgroFresh, said not only innovation and technology but consumer eating behaviors, environmental considerations and the arrival of new varieties will shape the far future of storage.

She said AgroFresh is investigating complementary storage platforms that could provide additional flexibility in storing and marketing. Matching systems will allow for increased monitoring of stored produce, dynamic atomization of the CA regime and reliable disease control. This includes the use of new sensor technologies and respiration control programs that offer automatic security checks.

The company also is exploring the possibility of reducing the energy bill when using SmartFresh. Saving energy during long-term storage could become a hot topic in the future, and is already important in countries where electricity costs are higher, she said.

Jim Schaefer, president of Storage Control Systems (SCS), said storage facilities of the future will be insulated with food-safe panels, cooled with efficient temperature systems and contain lower levels of oxygen than previously seen.

Schaefer mentioned SCS products that can help those things come about. The SafePod, which first became available last year, creates a chamber comprised of representative samples of produce inside a larger CA storage, allowing the operator to test for the lowest possible oxygen level without damaging the entire room. SCS also offers a variant of the system called LabPod, which regulates its own O2/CO2 with or without being inside the larger CA room.

Food safety also will be more important. When building a produce storage, operators must realize that food auditors will treat it like it’s a meat-packing plant. Storage rooms of the future will need metal panels that are washable and food-safe, he said.

The company’s Frigadon Chiller can make a facility more energy efficient. A conventional system might require 3,000 pounds of Freon, but the Frigadon Chiller only needs 100 pounds to cool the same amount of produce. A liquid called Hycool allows the system to do that, Schaefer said.

Jim Still, president of Global Cooling & Postharvest, stressed the importance of the cold chain, and said the most important link in that chain is the first one: precooling.

“We hear owners brag about their new packing lines, their sorters, their tractor trailers, even their varieties,” Still said. “When have you ever heard one brag about his precoolers?”

Most produce waste happens in refrigeration, because the precooling wasn’t good enough. With cherries, for example, every one-hour delay in bringing freshly picked fruit down to 40˚ F equals a one-day loss in shelf life, he said.

Still said most growers, packers and shippers don’t truly understand refrigeration of produce.

“Many think that if you have a cold room and put hot produce in, the produce will get cold,” he said. “It will get cold, but sometimes it takes a day or two.”

Vincent Nicoletis, eastern regional manager of JMT US, said the future includes providing a larger population of growers with storage solutions adapted to their needs. The main improvement will be smarter packaging, capable of increasing the shelf life of produce. This trend will be driven by the growing demand for local food.

“People want to eat fresh produce year long, and that is why we believe in improving shelf life,” Nicoletis said.

He said JMT has developed a unique storage technology called the controlled atmosphere module, developed for growers looking for alternatives to controlled atmosphere rooms.

The module has to be used in a regular cold room and only relies on the respiration of the produce. All the technology is in the membrane, which is able to release the CO2 out of the bin. The gas concentration in the module after stabilization is around 3 percent O2 and 3 percent CO2, he said.

Nicoletis said the product gives operators more time to market their produce. For crops with a short shelf life, like blueberries or cherries, additional time can help sell them at a better price; whereas for long shelf-life crops like apples and pears, additional time will extend the market season and reduce the quantity sold for processing.

Matt Milkovich

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