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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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National Program 306: Quality and Utilization of Agricultural Products
2000-2010 Action Plan (modified in 2004)
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1 - INTRODUCTION
2 - COMPONENT 1. Quality Characterization, Preservation, and Enhancement
3 - COMPONENT 2. New Processes, New Uses, and Value-Added Foods and Biobased Products
4 - CRIS Projects
COMPONENT 1. Quality Characterization, Preservation, and Enhancement

Problem Area 1a.  Definition and Basis for Quality

Issues

Quality is the composite of those attributes that contribute to the acceptability of a product by the customer.  Thus, it becomes essential to identify and define what those attributes are before one can measure quality or establish quality standards or grades.  In order to optimize quality, fundamental knowledge of biochemical, cellular, and molecular processes and their role in determining product quality is needed.  The relationships between chemical and physical attributes and sensory perception are important to defining quality.  As consumer preferences change, an understanding of the role of changing product composition in determining quality becomes important.

 Objectives

  • Identify attributes that define quality of agricultural products.
  • Develop better understanding of relationships between composition and component molecular structure and end-use quality and function and sensory characteristics.
  • Assess quality trends and needs of agricultural products in global markets.

Planned Research Activities

Fruits, Vegetables, Tree Nuts, and Sugar Crops

Analytical chemical techniques will be used to identify and quantify compounds contributing to appearance (pigments, surface components), flavor (including components of aroma and the basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, astringent), and human health (phytochemicals).  This information will serve as a baseline to evaluate how the metabolic processes associated with wounding, dormancy/sprouting, ripening and senescence impact production and utilization of these compounds.  Biochemical and genetic techniques will be utilized to characterize impact of produce developmental processes on metabolism of these compounds.  Biochemical, physical, and genetic analyses will be conducted to characterize changes in structural components, as well as regulation of the metabolic processes that result in textural changes.  Sensory evaluation will be conducted to accompany these analytical procedures to provide measures of human perception of quality.

Molecular, biochemical, and chemical procedures will be used to characterize processes of wound healing, dormancy/sprouting, ripening and senescence that affect produce resistance to postharvest environmental and microbiological stresses.  Physiological, biochemical, and molecular approaches will be developed to determine reversible and irreversible cellular and biological indices of produce storage disorders.

Researchers will use molecular and traditional biochemical approaches to understand underlying processes involved in quality loss and retention in fresh cut and minimally processed commodities.

Animal Products:

Muscle foods--The causes of conditions such as premature browning and persistent pinking in meats will be determined. 

Hides and leather--Molecular modeling and associated spectroscopy will be applied to study the interaction of collagen-I with hide proteoglycans and glycoproteins.  The expansion of the molecular model of collagen-I, and associated spectroscopic studies, will lead to a fundamental understanding of the nature of collagen crosslinking, chrome tanning, and alternative crosslinking processes.  Immunohistochemistry, enzymology, and biochemical separations will be used to determine the presence or absence of specific proteoglycans and glycoproteins in hides during their early-stage processing and their relationship to leather quality.

Animal fat and other renderer's products--Gas and liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry methods will be employed to identify, characterize, and quantitate the natural and degraded components of fats and greases.

Cereals, Oilseeds, and Novel Crops:

Basic relationships between composition, molecular structure, physical state, and end-use performance will be delineated by examining constituents in situ and isolated in raw crops and processing systems.  Gel permeation chromatography, capillary electrophoresis, near infrared spectroscopy, Fourier-transform infrared and Raman spectroscopy, differential scanning calorimetry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy, and rheological methods will be utilized to characterize molecular-level structure and interactions.  Structure-property relationships will be established by application of advanced statistical and mathematical modeling techniques.  Gas and liquid chromatography coupled to mass spectrometry methods will be employed to identify, characterize, and quantitate biologically-active constituents, such as lipids, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.  These components in their native and processed forms will be tested for their biological activity (e.g. ability to lower plasma cholesterol, prevent aortic plaque formation, reduce blood glucose and insulin response, prevent formation of precancerous intestinal cells in animals).  Mechanistic elucidation of the metabolic pathways involved in the biosynthesis of biologically-active compounds will be investigated through the identification of the precursors, intermediates, and/or final products.  Regulatory biochemical pathways and genes responsible for quality will be determined.

Agricultural Fibers

Research will elucidate important physical and chemical aspects of fiber structure and biochemical, cellular, and molecular events that determine the processes of fiber formation, development, and maturation.  The fundamental physical, chemical, and biological attributes will be used to improve theoretical models of fiber structure and evaluated as a basis for targeted interventions to improve fiber quality.

ARS Research Locations

Aberdeen, ID; Albany, CA; Ames, IA; Athens, GA; Beltsville, MD; East Lansing, MI; Fargo, ND; Fresno, CA; Lane, OK; Lincoln, NE; Madison, WI; Manhattan, KS; New Orleans, LA; Oxford, MS; Peoria, IL; Phoenix, AZ; Pullman, WA; Raleigh, NC; Wenatchee, WA; Weslaco, TX; Winter Haven, FL; Wooster, OH; and Wyndmoor, PA.

Problem Area 1b.  Methods to Evaluate and Predict Quality

Issues

A better understanding of what constitutes quality and how we can relate composition and molecular structure to quality (Problem Area 1a) requires that we be able to measure those compounds or attributes that determine or predict end-use quality.  Detection and quantification methods for many compounds in agricultural products are either lacking or tedious and time-consuming.  Rapid, accurate, precise, nondestructive, and cost effective methods are needed to sample, measure, and track the various components, attributes or indicators that determine quality of agricultural products.  Correlations of physicochemical and/or biochemical data with sensory or performance-based evaluations are needed.  A new generation of quality measurement and classing strategies must be introduced to keep pace with advances in production and processing procedures.

Objectives

  • Develop rapid, non-destructive methods for detection and measurement of physical/chemical quality attributes and quality defects.
  • Develop automated, high-throughput on-line grading, sorting, and packaging systems for agricultural products.
  • Develop methods to evaluate the performance of sampling plans to measure quality characteristics of agricultural commodities shipped in bulk.
  • Develop and utilize multispectral techniques, imaging and image analysis, and methods incorporating information technology and artificial intelligence for further improvement of processing and grading.

Planned Research Activities

Fruits, Vegetables, Tree Nuts, and Sugar Crops: 

Develop a model to evaluate the performance of sampling plans to detect aflatoxin in bulk shipments of amonds.

Researchers will develop rapid, non-destructive methods for grading and sorting apples and tree nuts based on visible imaging, infrared transmittance, X-rays, surface reflectance of light at specific (540nm, 760nm, 960nm) wavelengths, and other techniques and that are compatible with the needs of commercial packing houses.

The potential for artificial intelligence technology (i.e. computer vision, robotics, and control systems, etc.) and other advanced forms of information technology (neural networks, fuzzy logic, and genetic algorithms) as quick methods to measure fresh produce quality attributes will be assessed.  Other such areas that will be further investigated for similar potential are:   optical evaluations using far-infrared thermography for surface appearance and damage evaluations and near infrared reflectance for internal quality evaluations; acoustic or ultrasound for firmness, texture evaluations; nuclear magnetic resonance for internal breakdown and composition evaluations;  fluidized beds for density evaluation and biosensors for determinations of taste, smell, flavor, and other internal gas/volatile concentrations.

Scientists will correlate sensory and analytical methods for product evaluation with computer multivariate analysis programs to develop better and faster techniques useful to juice processors for monitoring product quality and for new product development.

Animal Products:

Muscle foods--Comprehensive research efforts will profile meat products for specific markets by utilizing both instrumental and sensory procedures to measure quality attributes or functional properties which have a direct bearing on quality.  Special emphasis will be placed on developing procedures that are nondestructive, noninvasive, and will minimize the use of hazardous chemicals and provide information for decisions at line speed.  Meat tenderness will be measured using NIR reflectance spectra.  The NIR results will be validated by sensory panels and instrumental tests.  These integrated measures will be determined for basic meat cuts, as well as ready-to-eat products.

Hides and leather--Fundamental studies will be conducted to establish correlations between measured properties (e.g., tensile strength) and hide quality.  Methods will be established to measure hide quality nondestructively:  acoustic emission is one such approach, and digital image analysis is another.  Nondestructive testing will be developed for in-line use during leather production.

Animal fat and other renderer's products--Instrumental methodology will be developed and applied to characterize molecular structure, interactions, and morphology of fats, greases, and other renderer's products.

Cereals, Oilseeds, and Novel Crops:

Develop models to evaluate the performance of sampling plans to detect and measure genetically modified seed in corn.  TCK spores in wheat and foreign material in shelled peanuts.

Instrumental methodology, such as chromatography, capillary electrophoresis, infra-red spectroscopy, thermal analysis, NMR, rheology, and microscopy, will be utilized to characterize molecular structure, interactions, and morphology.  Chemical and physical analysis data will be correlated with sensory evaluations.  New sensor technologies such as 'bio-chips' will be made part of an overall analytical scheme to continuously monitor quality at all points in the food manufacturing and marketing sector.

Agricultural Fibers:

Quantitative models of fiber physical structure based on quantitative fiber wall formation and deconstruction studies will be used to refine interpretations of relationships between intrinsic fiber quality properties and fiber utility value.  Methods and technologies to rapidly and accurately measure desired fiber qualities or physical parameters will be developed, which can be incorporated into a High Volume Instrument (HVI) approach or other suitable quality assessment approaches, such as Advanced Fiber Instrument System (AFIS) testing or online grading in cotton gins.  In cooperation with USDA-AMS and others, new methods and technologies will be evaluated.   Standard reference methods will be developed, suitable for calibration of classing methods and technologies.  Barriers to adoption of new technologies for more precise, accurate, efficient, and cost-effective fiber classing will be identified and overcome to the extent feasible.  Studies of cotton will not be limited to properties currently used to establish grade, but will extend to stickiness, short fiber content, and other traits that affect utility value.  New standards and procedures for grading flax will be developed.  Image analysis techniques will be developed and applied to the evaluation of wool fiber quality.

ARS Research Locations

Albany, CA; Athens, GA; Beltsville, MD; Clemson, SC; Dawson, GA; East Lansing, MI; Fargo, ND; Las Cruces, NM;  Lubbock, TX; Manhattan, KS; New Orleans, LA; Oxford, MS; Peoria, IL; Pullman, WA; Raleigh, NC; Stoneville, MS; Weslaco, TX; Winter Haven, FL; Wooster, OH; and Wyndmoor, PA.

Problem Area 1c.  Factors and Processes that Affect Quality

Issues

Compounds and metabolic processes which contribute to color, flavor, and textural and structural properties often differ among apparently similar products, and causes of variability are often poorly understood.  Genetics and environment (pre-harvest and post-harvest) can profoundly affect quality, as can storage (especially long term), handling, and processing practices, but in many cases causes of these variations are poorly recognized.  Determination of physicochemical changes during storage, marketing, or processing is essential to maintain quality of many agricultural products.  Effects of metabolic changes induced to improve quality on subsequent byproduct quality are also poorly understood.

 Objectives

  • Determine influence of pre-harvest factors on quality, including genetics, production practices and environment.
  • Determine influence of post-harvest factors on quality, including storage, handling, grading, and processing.
  • Evaluate effects of safety and environmental protocols on quality of foods.

Planned Research Activities 

Fruits, Vegetables, Tree Nuts, and Sugar Crops:  

Varietal and preharvest production factors will be evaluated for their effects on product quality and shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables.  The biochemical and physiological effects of postharvest processes such as wounding, dormancy/sprouting, ripening and senescence on product quality and shelf life will also be assessed.  Researchers will determine the effects of factors such as variety, harvest maturity, growing region, cutting, packaging, and storage conditions on flavor and texture of fresh cut and minimally processed produce through human sensory and biochemical analyses.

Animal Products:

Muscle foods--The rheological properties of meat and muscle components as they change due to genetics, management practices, aging, postharvest intervention strategies, and cooking will be determined.  Mathematical models will be developed to characterize the nonlinear rheological properties and NIR spectroscopic properties will be studied.  Effects of postmortem practices, such as time of fabrication, physical state (nonfrozen, frozen), bulk package vs individual patties, and cooking/holding conditions will be evaluated.

Hides and leather--Variations in the contents of  specific proteoglycans and glycoproteins in hides as affected by animal research directed toward muscle growth and meat tenderness will be assessed, and the physical properties of leather made from those hides will be determined.   The results of food safety experiments directed toward rapid unhairing of cattle in the slaughterhouse will be monitored for effects on the quality of the hides and resultant leather.  Mechanical properties will be studied to better understand the impact of processing on resultant leather quality.

Animal fat and other renderer's products--Research will address long-term storage and handling parameters such as temperature, humidity, cleanliness, and atmosphere for impact on product flavor, microbial activity, and thermal stability.

Dairy foods--The role of the environment on the structure and function of milk proteins and peptides will be determined.  Physical aspects of cheese texture will be correlated with molecular level structure.  Chemical and physical interactions at the molecular level during extrusion will be correlated to structure, texture, and nutritional value of the extrudates.  The effects of different processing techniques on structural features of milk proteins and microbial flora in fluid cheesemilk will be evaluated, and findings will be related to processing parameters, textural qualities, and proteolysis of fresh and ripened ethnic cheeses.  The effects of environmental variables on the expression of regulatory biochemical pathways and genes responsible for quality will be ascertained.

Cereals, Oilseeds, and Novel Crops

The effects of genetic, pre-harvest (e.g. environment), and post-harvest (e.g. drying, moisture content, milling, storage) factors on quality attributes will be determined.  An understanding of the effects of production, handling, and processing on sensory properties will be obtained by statistically correlating human sensory analyses with instrumental measurements of constituents involved in physiological, biochemical, and structural/functional processes.  Research will also address long-term storage and handling parameters such as temperature, humidity, cleanliness, and atmosphere for impact on product flavor, microbial activity, pest control, and product damage or loss.

Agricultural Fibers

Research will identify sources of fiber variation, such as production environment (both spatial and temporal variability), harvesting technology, and various post-harvest processing steps (including cleaning, ginning, and related processes).   The research approaches will emphasize fiber property quantitation, and existing databases will be 'mined' to improve theoretical fiber models, fiber-production models, fiber-quality predictors, and fiber grading methodology.  New production technology, such as precision agriculture tools, will be used to develop insights into fiber variability.  The expanded knowledge of quantitative fiber quality will be used in cooperation with USDA-AMS and other partners to test and improve precision, accuracy, and utility of fiber classing data and to relate identified processing problems to intrinsic fiber properties, which may explain, predict or eliminate the fiber processing failure.  The economic impact of both intrinsic and introduced variations in fiber properties, and of the practices identified as sources of the variations, will be investigated by relating changes in fiber properties to fiber end-use suitability and utility value.  These results will be used to improve quality measurement instrumentation, and address economic factors like loan premiums and discounts.  Quantitative knowledge of fiber properties from characterized production systems will also be used to clarify communication among manufacturers, ginners, producers, and breeders.

ARS Research Locations

Aberdeen, ID; Albany, CA; Ames, IA; Athens, GA; Beltsville, MD; Clemson, SC; Dawson, GA; East Lansing, MI; Fargo, ND; Fresno, CA; Lane, OK; Las Cruces; NM; Lincoln, NE; Lubbock, TX; Madison, WI; Manhattan, KS; New Orleans, LA; Peoria, IL; Phoenix, AZ; Pullman, WA; Raleigh, NC; Stoneville, MS; Wenatchee, WA; Weslaco, TX; Winter Haven, FL; Wooster, OH; and Wyndmoor, PA.

Problem Area 1d.  Preservation and/or Enhancement of Quality and Marketability

Issues

Research is needed to explore new opportunities to enhance quality of agricultural products both before and after harvest/slaughter, based on new knowledge gained in problem areas 1a and 1c.  Handling and storage methods are needed which also preserve the quality of perishable high-quality products and minimize health and safety concerns to workers.  Losses due to post-harvest pathogens and disorders are more costly than losses during production because of the added value of the processed product.  New technologies are needed to replace those based on synthetic chemicals for control of post-harvest pests and pathogens.   Gaps remain in understanding taxonomy and biology of plant pathogens of quarantine significance.  Rapid and reliable identification of quarantine pests and pathogens is essential to establish and maintain export markets.

Objectives:

  • Develop strategies to enhance intrinsic product quality and consistency.
  • Improve storage technologies which maintain quality and nutrition and increase shelf life.
  • Enhance nutritional value of agricultural products.
  • Investigate use of antagonistic yeasts and bacteria for antimicrobial effects to enhance safety and reduce spoilage.
  • Develop environmentally friendly strategies for plant and animal pathogen control.
  • Minimize effects of pest infestation and food-borne risks on trade of agricultural products.  

 Planned Research Activities 

Fruits, Vegetables, Tree Nuts, and Sugar Crops

New strategies to control pests, pathogens and storage disorders will be developed based upon use of resistant varieties, biological control strategies, new packaging methods and other 'soft' technologies.  This will provide growers and shippers with alternatives to chemicals and fumigants being removed from the market.  Basic and applied research will be aimed at developing non-pesticide technologies that minimize losses from pests and reduce food-borne health risks.  Work is also aimed at minimizing risk of exotic pest introduction and developing technologies to control pests of quarantine significance.  Expanding use of ionizing energies (gamma irradiation) for product disinfestation treatment to extend storage-life will be assessed.

Genetic improvement, along with modified and/or controlled atmospheres and improved coatings and films, will be employed to increase the shelf life of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Food safety and decay control strategies will be developed to extend marketable shelf life without the use of synthetic chemicals that restrict export to foreign markets.  Atmospheric modification will be further enhanced by developing absorbent compounds to limit produce-generated carbon dioxide and ethylene during storage.

Knowledge gained under problem area 1a will be used to develop superior germplasm with enhanced postharvest characteristics and to manipulate storage conditions to prolong product quality. 

Researchers will use information generated in problem areas 1a and 1c to produce fresh-cut products with optimal sensory quality without compromising product safety.

New non-thermal processing methods will be evaluated for the production of higher quality juice products.  New processes will be developed to limit the loss of sucrose during sugarbeet and sugarcane processing.

Animal Products:

Muscle foods--Nontraditional, environmentally friendly processes will be developed to optimize quality characteristics.  Processes to ensure optimum tenderization will include shock wave pressure technology to disrupt fiber structure, indigenous enzyme activation to break down fiber structure, and combining pulsed electric current and physical restraint of poultry breast muscles to deplete ATP levels while avoiding sarcomere contraction.  All of these processes have the potential to be used in commercial operations.  Methods for surface pasteurization of meat will be developed that do not adversely affect skin or muscle surface characteristics.  The unique approach of interrupting the life cycle of algae responsible for off-flavor in pond raised catfish will be evaluated.  If successful, this natural agent could be used at the farm level to prevent the resulting off-flavor problem in muscle tissue.

Intervention strategies will be developed to eliminate premature browning and persistent pinking in meats.

Research will establish complimentary handling/grading procedures that accurately segregate carcasses or portions to maximize raw meat use and reduce waste product accumulation.

Dairy foods -- Develop diary lactic fermentation bacteria with genetic capability to produce natural or milk-based biologically active food ingredients to improve the health-promoting, functional and bioprotective properties of foods.

Hides and leather--Alternative methods of short-term hide preservation will be developed in response to increasing environmental concerns.  Methods for processing 'green hides' are needed for those hides to be processed at the packing plant; salt curing needs to be responsive to environmental regulations at the tannery site where the salt is removed; packing plants that incorporate irradiation facilities for meat preservation need to understand the protocols for effective preservation of hides by irradiation; and packaging of hides needs to be attuned to warehouse conditions and--for international trade--those of cargo ships.  Bioprocesses will be invoked to effect leather tanning.

Animal fat and other renderer's products--Efficiency of handling and storage will be improved to prevent damage and spoilage.

Cereals, Oilseeds, and Novel Crops: 

Using the knowledge gained under problem area 1a and 1c, plant breeders will target the display of particular quality attributes and environmental stability in the germplasm.  Research efforts will include calibration of grain flowrates through orifices, suppression of grain dust to reduce risk of explosion, economic modeling of mechanical screening of peanuts, the design of mechanical screeners for farmer's stock peanuts, the establishment of aflatoxin sampling plans for farmer's stock peanuts, and the rheology of biopolymer blends derived from plant materials.  Efficiency of handling and storage will be improved to prevent damage and spoilage.

Agricultural Fibers:  

Fiber quality deterioration during handling and storage, whether by weathering or through microbial action, will be documented and related to end-use performance and utility value.  New technologies, including both prevention and intervention strategies as appropriate, will be developed and evaluated.  Strategies and technologies to minimize dust emissions and other hazards during fiber processing will be developed and tested.

ARS Research Locations

Aberdeen, ID; Albany, CA; Ames, IA; Athens, GA; Beltsville, MD; Clemson, SC; Dawson, GA; East Lansing, MI; Fargo, ND; Fresno, CA; Lane, OK; Las Cruces, NM; Lincoln, NE; Lubbock, TX; Madison, WI; Manhattan, KS; New Orleans, LA; Oxford, MS; Peoria, IL; Phoenix, AZ; Pullman, WA; Raleigh, NC; Stoneville, MS; Wenatchee, WA; Weslaco, TX; Winter Haven, FL; Wooster, OH; and Wyndmoor, PA.

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Last Modified: 10/7/2008
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