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R&D on fresh-cut produce: a view from Giancarlo Colelli, coordinator of EU Project QUAFETY

In the last few years Prof. Giancarlo Colelli (University of Foggia, Italy) has been one of the most active European scientist on the scene of R&D and innovation transfer programs related to fresh-cut produce. Colelli is the scientific coordinator of EU Project QUAFETY (Comprehensive Approach to Enhance Quality and Safety of Ready to Eat Fresh Products), a research project co-funded by the European Commission, involving 14 partners from Italy, UK, Portugal, the Netherlands, Poland, Israel, and Greece. QUAFETY started early in 2012, and it is due to be completed by March 31 2015, after more than 3 years of intensive work.

We take this chance to ask Prof. Colelli a few questions about this project.

Question 1. With only a few more months to go to complete Project QUAFETY, what is your general idea about its outcomes?

Answer. QUAFETY has been a big challenge as we had to combine state-of-the-art innovative research and SME involvement in the activities of the project. Most of the objectives we set in our proposal have already been reached, while the rest are very close to accomplishment. I estimate a total of more than 50 scientists and about the same number of staff members have been involved in this effort, with about 15 scientific papers being already published, about 8 already submitted, and many more manuscripts in preparation. Results have been presented at many levels (scientific and industry meetings) and in many Countries. Just to give an idea, as coordinator I’ve been presenting the project in Italy (Cesena, Milan, Bari, Padova, Verona, Foggia, Palermo, Catania, Brindisi, Mantova), in Europe (Germany, UK, Croatia, Greece, Poland, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus), and outside Europe (Texas, California, Laos, Turkey). This means that a large number of people, both in industry and in scientific communities, have been directly exposed to QUAFETY and made aware of the tremendous amount of work performed by Partners.

Question 2. Can you name some of the results of the project which may potentially have an impact in the European fresh-cut industry?

Answer. QUAFETY consisted of 24 R&D tasks grouped in four work-packages; all of them produced results which, with different degree of promptness, will have an impact on the fresh-cut industry, so it is not easy for me to name only some of them. Main objectives are addressed to provide the industry with diagnostic kits for the evaluation of microbial contamination and shelf-life, together with tools for process control based on non-destructive and rapid measurements. Industry operators will be facilitated with decisions supporting tools in very critical points of the fresh-cut processing chain from raw genotype selection to economic strategic planning. New testing methods contributing positively on the improvement of the food safety are important aspects that could help producers differentiating their products. The added value lies in increasing the innovation capacity of the food industry, thus strengthening its competitiveness.

Question 3. We know it is difficult, but still we ask you to be more specific in your description of the results…

Answer. Just to make a few examples on potential impacts consider the possibility of early detection of human pathogens: classical approved methods for detecting presence of pathogen on produce may take as long as 4-6 days, almost as much as product shelf-life. Method developed by the University of Foggia based on “most probable number” and “real-time PCR” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8YCpkyE-dg) allow to shrink this time to hours, with countless advantages in terms of promptness of reaction (more tests, segregation, recalls, etc.) in case of positive results. Another example is the identification of molecular markers for quality attributes: before quality degradation takes places, a number of genes are either up- or down-regulated, with specific metabolic changes related to tissue physiology. Some of these genes have been univocally indentified at the University of Milan and this may lead to development of ad-hoc kits to be used as early detection of changes, or, in turn, as tools for shelf-life prediction. Another example regards the possibility of modeling changes of internal quality attributes: while appearance is the first attribute that consumers evaluate in their choice, nutritional and organoleptic attributes are assuming more and more importance, although most of these attributes are difficult for the industry to determine. Models are being developed at the University of Foggia that allow to predict fate of some internal quality attributes in relation to changes of appearance descriptors, in various simulated in-package environmental conditions.

Preservation of nutritional attributes has also been one of the objectives of the work performed by the Catholic University of Porto and the fresh-cut fruit processor Nuvifruits where, through a focused nutritional audit could identify the most critical steps of fresh-cut processing lines for nutritional and functional markers and microbial growth affecting quality and safety of selected commodities.

To name another one: produce volatile organic compounds (VOC) represent a valuable tool for non-destructive assessment of product quality, effects of processing, or shelf life. A system has been developed by Cardiff University an Markes Intnl. which enables the collection of VOCs with a simple procedure, operated by minimally trained staff. Data on product quality, or markers for possible pathogen contamination, can be obtained within a few days.

The ARO Volcani Center has designed, manufactured and tested a prototype machine for hands-off preparation of fresh-cut melons and watermelons without manual operations. This will allow cost reduction and increase safety and shelf-life potential.

Finally, an innovative treatment method with ultrafiltration and ClO2 proved to increase sanitation efficiency and reduce water consumption, as a viable alternative to the use of sodium hypochlorite. This method developed by Agronomia sarl, a fresh-cut salad processor, is already been implemented in their facilities leading to save thousands of euros for treatment of washing water.

These are just some of the innovations from Project QUAFETY. Research activities are producing and implementing user-friendly decision-making tools for the optimisation of food processing techniques, product innovation, and food product shelf-life determination. In the interest of consumers, industry and policy makers, these efforts should improve food safety and minimize food spoilage.

Question 4. What has been the role of dissemination in this project?

Answer. I always thought dissemination should be an important complement to the R&D activities; many times the results of scientific investigation have been relegated into the laboratories or, at the most, into the pages of scientific Journals. When we wrote QUAFETY proposal we had clear in mind the importance of delivering results of the Project to an audience as large as possible, including scientific community, industry, authorities, and media.

Scientific articles, participation to conferences and extension meetings, on-site demonstrations, organization of training events, presence on specialized and general media and on the world wide web: all these channels have been used in order to share results of the Project. FreshPlaza (One of the Partners) is a publisher specifically dedicated to dissemination of QUAFETY results through a specific section on their multilingual portals weekly visited by hundreds of thousands of contacts. On-line interactive meetings on specific topics of the Project were held using the platform Tacler, where every day hundreds of fresh produce market operators meet for their business. Many efforts have been made in these 3 years in order to spread results, and take the opportunity to challenge them with the needs of the real world. However I think that the most important and effective way to disseminate the results of the Project has been through the demonstration and scaling-up activities carried out for nearly one year which have seen a very intensive degree of collaboration among R&D Institutions participating in the Project and SMEs both partners and external to the Project. A whole work-package of the proposal was dedicated to this type of interactions which, in my opinion, are always very fruitful and may constitute the starting point for further cooperations.

Question 5. What’s next for Project QUAFETY?

. QUAFETY will be officially closed by March 31. There are a number of events which have already been planned where QUAFETY results will be disseminated.

Next week, Project QUAFETY will be present and active at Berlin’s Fruit Logistica. There will be a dedicated Project booth where scientists can meet industry representatives, distribute material, discuss, network. In addition, some partners will make short, highly-focused presentations of their result during a 90-minute event in the Fruit Logistica Forum (http://www.fruitlogistica.de/en/TradeVisitors/Events/EventDetail.jsp?eventDateId=344354).

Last week of March there will be the final meeting of QUAFETY in the Netherlands, organized by Fresh Plaza. In that meeting, besides result presentations from partners, there will be discussion panel with press representatives and project outcomes will be discussed. It will be a way of planning future interaction and cooperation strategies among QUAFETY scientists and stakeholders.

QUAFETY will be present in an event planned within the EXPO 2015 exhibition in Milan which will probably take place in June. As Coordinator, I have been invited to lecture on QUAFETY findings in the 3rd ISHS International Conference on Fresh-cut Produce: Maintaining Quality & Safety, next September at the University of California in Davis. A new proposal have already been submitted through a H2020 EC call in order to develop some of the QUAFETY results within a higher education program, with the objective to carry on R&D activities in collaboration with the industry. I think the work will never be over as there is a strong demand of research and development activities aimed to maintain quality and improve safety of fresh-cut produce.

For further info:
Giancarlo Colelli

Publication date: 2/2/2015


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