Despite the numerous health benefits of fruit consumption, recent research has found that less than 10% of Americans meet the recommended daily guidelines for fruit intake (Kimmons et al., 2009). From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of Americans consuming fruit at least two times per day actually decreased (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). At the federal level, a renewed effort is being made to encourage consumption of produce, with the core message of making half your plate fruits and vegetables (Post et al., 2011). From the perspective of the fruit industry, increased consumption represents an opportunity to contribute not only to the health and well-being of Americans, but also to the competitiveness and profits of the industry.
Kader (2008) proposed that better fruit flavor is an important factor in shaping how much fruit is being consumed and emphasized both preharvest and postharvest variables that influence fruit quality. The essential challenge of providing consumers with high-quality, flavorful fruit is that more mature or riper fruit is softer, is more prone to injury during harvesting and transporting, and has a shorter shelf life. Therefore, maintaining flavor quality requires attention to a variety of factors, including harvest timing, cold chain management, time to market, modified atmospheres (MAs), and shipping and handling practices throughout the supply chain (Beckles, 2012; Brecht et al., 2003; Cantwell et al., 2009; Toivonen, 2007).
Although most growers prefer to provide consumers with a positive eating experience, many make a business decision to choose shipability and shelf life over fruit quality and taste. This decision shapes their variety selection and harvest scheduling, both of which can compromise fruit quality and flavor (Tijskens et al., 2007); current practices, including an emphasis on long shelf life, nonoptimal harvest maturity, and improper storage temperatures, are not compatible with optimal fruit quality and consumer satisfaction (Mitcham, 2010).
For some experts, harvest timing, as it influences flavor development, is seen as the strongest determiner of fruit quality because harvest interrupts the production of sugars, while processes such as transpiration and respiration continue (Zerbini, 2008). Growers who supply fruit harvested at optimum maturity must “identify optimal postharvest handling conditions” to preserve fruit flavor (Kader, 2008) and need to understand how postharvest handling conditions affect the flavor life of specific types of fruit (Forney, 2001). Consumer preferences for quality take into account several factors, including fruit appearance, texture, and flavor (Kader, 2000), with the effect of fruit quality on consumption being evidenced by whether the consumer repeats buying (Mitcham, 2010). Although consumers frequently purchase fruit based on physical appearance and texture, repeat buying is dependent upon consumer satisfaction with fruit flavor (Kader, 2001), which is a strong argument for basing postharvest life on flavor and not appearance (Kader, 2008). In the case of tomatoes, Beckles (2012) stated that the eating experience “depends on several highly interacting factors, genetic-, agronomic-, climactic- and various postharvest handling-related issues.” Because these factors are relevant to all fruit, the industry must balance the interests of flavor with the realities of the supply chain in an effort to deliver the highest-quality produce.
Although there is considerable research on the benefits of good postharvest fruit handling practices, there is little social science research on the attitudes and practices of the produce industry in the arena of postharvest handling. This research draws on key informant interviews with fruit industry leaders designed to collect information on their attitudes and practices related to postharvest handling of more mature or riper fruit, harvest timing, preconditioning, cold chain management, shipping and handling procedures, and supply chain management. This research was conducted as part of a larger project, which was a joint effort of the University of California, Davis, and the University of Florida funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The project, titled “Increasing Consumption of Specialty Crops by Enhancing their Quality and Safety,” had the overall goal of demonstrating 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. The project addressed all segments of the supply chain and focused on melons, pears, peaches, nectarines, tomatoes, strawberries, and blueberries. Although tomato is commonly categorized as a vegetable by consumers and the horticulture industry, it is botanically a fruit. Thus, we have chosen to collectively refer to all of the produce items in this study as “fruit.”
The objective of this article is to use qualitative methods to explore the extent to which fruit industry experts believe that postharvest fruit handling affects fruit flavor and the extent to which these experts believe that improved taste quality would lead to increased consumer purchasing.
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