Virginia Tech researchers developing method to improve long-term storage of pears
To help keep prices low and pears fresh longer, Virginia Tech researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are examining how fresh pears change during storage and how this information can be used to keep food safety risks low over time.
“The tree fruit industry uses a method that slows down the pears' natural ripening process so consumers can get fresh pears year-round and help shoppers stay within their budgets,” said Alexis Hamilton, the co-principal investigator of the project, an assistant professor of food processing microbiology in the Department of Food Science and Technology, and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist. “It’s a really good way to produce and market this product all year.”
During the two-year, $335,000 grant from the Center for Produce Safety, Virginia Tech researchers are collaborating with the University of Georgia to examine different storage methods to reduce spoilage and food safety issues associated with the long-term storage of the popular tree fruit.
“Anyone who has ever put a produce item in a refrigerator knows that it will eventually go bad,” Hamilton said. “This project will help us understand how current industry practices can impact spoilage and food safety concerns so that we can provide actionable recommendations to the industry to delay spoilage even further without increasing food safety risks. We’re hopeful that these recommendations could be extended to other tree fruits as well.”
This research helps consumers and producers alike by keeping prices down and by reducing overall loss.
Hamilton previously worked with apples alongside the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Washington state, studying how this long-term storage environment can impact the safety of fresh apples.
“We learned some really interesting things about how spoilage issues can affect food safety risks over time,” she said. “We’re hoping to apply this question and add some other risk mitigation measures for the storage of pears.”
Currently, pears are wrapped in paper in boxes or stored in bulk bins for up to a year.
The researchers, including Laura Strawn, an associate professor in the department and the principal investigator of the project, will initially look at microbial communities on the surfaces of pears and study how the communities change during the storage environment. Then, the top three key players will be identified and tested against a foodborne pathogen.
“The application of metagenomic approaches offers exciting opportunities to fill in knowledge gaps and improve food safety and quality for the industry,” Strawn said. "Understanding microbial communities may yield novel synergistic or antagonistic relationships between spoilage organisms and pathogens.”
Cost-effective recommendations will be provided to tree fruit growers.
“These producers will be able to make small changes to manage their crops so that they have a better yield at the end of the year,” Hamilton said.