This autumn marks the start of a three-year Innovate UK-supported trial of a technology named SafePod that has the potential to extend the storage life of fresh produce beyond traditional controlled atmosphere capabilities. Produce Business UK learns what the product could offer suppliers and their customers
Admittedly, the thought of apples and pears sitting in a pitch black coldroom for months on end is not quite as romantic as the golden-hued autumnal vision of workers busily picking apples in an orchard that will reach consumers that same week.
However, given the many benefits of being able to sell UK-grown produce for as many months of the year as possible, effective storage is – like it or not – an essential part of British top-fruit production.
Inside these controlled atmosphere (CA) stores the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is manipulated according to the different apple cultivars that are in the room. Whilst some varieties arguably store better than others, on average, an English-grown dessert apple can be stored until the spring after it’s been picked.
But what if that apple, and others like it, could be stored for even longer? Thanks to a few pioneers who are developing what is called Dynamic Controlled Atmosphere (DCA), this may soon be possible; potentially allowing the UK to further extend the parameters of its already lengthy season and support buyers during windows of low availability or expensive supply.
Major UK trial underway
David Bishop of Kent-based International Controlled Atmosphere (ICA) is one of those pioneers. He and Jim Schaefer, president of US-based Storage Control Systems, have developed a patented system called SafePod that is stirring up quite a bit of interest amongst buyers, packers and growers alike.
As its name suggests, the system is a type of “pod” that surreptitiously sits inside growers’ controlled atmosphere storage rooms. Bishop explains that the idea came about somewhat by chance, and was hurriedly noted down on a napkin. But the concept has definitely moved on from those humble beginnings.
As part of a major new research project, this week (w/c September 7, 2015) around 15 SafePods are being installed at East Malling Research (EMR) in Kent, while others are being set up at several commercial fruit farms across the county.
An impressive consortium – made up of ICA, the University of Greenwich (in association with the Produce Quality Centre at EMR), Kent-based top fruit grower AC Goatham & Son, Avalon Produce and Sainsbury’s – is leading the three-year trial, which has this year been awarded funding from Innovate UK.
The core aim is to determine how best this technology can be used for the benefit of the fresh produce industry.
Why has SafePod attracted so much interest?
One reason for the intrigue in SafePod could be the fact that the technology has a lot of potential – not just for top fruit, but also for other fresh produce crops.
Sarah Calcutt, chairwoman of the National Fruit Show, tells Produce Business UK that the development of DCA projects, such as SafePod, is significant because if such projects help the UK to extend its season, buyers will have a means of substituting imports at times when it’s difficult to bring produce into the country – such as when there’s an unreliable or expensive source of supply.
“It’s also about provenance,” she adds. “If you have a good set of English growers that do not let you down, that are ethically sound, it’s so much better than dealing with people on the other side of the world who may not be as robust as you want them to be.”
When it comes to fruit, Bishop explains that aside from being able to increase its storage life and therefore potentially extend the UK season, for apples this “intelligent atmosphere control” (as he likes to describe it) could also improve the firmness of the fruit, reduce the occurrence of the skin disorder scald, and reduce browning disorder in Braeburn.
Testing the boundaries
Over the years the storage conditions recommended to, and used by, growers have been steadily developed by scientists at EMR, according to Bishop. “These are standard conditions that are published and used universally,” he says. “It’s pretty safe but nevertheless, there are opportunities to improve that.”
Storage programmes currently used by growers have no way of knowing the nature of the growing season of any given year, the health of a grower’s orchard and the location of that orchard – all of which are factors that can affect how well a crop will store.
Bishop explains that SafePod works by enabling growers to fine-tune their settings. The device sits in a cold store and the fruit inside the chamber is exposed to the same conditions as the fruit in the rest of the store.
At regular intervals, SafePod is automatically isolated from the room’s atmosphere so its fruit can be tested for its respiration quotient (RQ) – that is, the amount of CO2 produced and O2 consumed. If this measurement is slightly out of whack it's a warning sign to growers that they need to adjust their room’s settings.
Bishop explains: “We need to look at the fruit in the store and make sure it’s behaving itself – make sure it’s ok. If any distress is detected we increase the oxygen a little bit.” Similarly, the fruit inside the “pod” can be purposely exposed to more extreme settings than the rest of the store to give growers a clearer idea of what the crop’s damage threshold is.
Bishop points out that the world’s first automatic control of commercial low oxygen CA atmospheres were developed in the UK back in 1978 by Kent grower Peter Pemble. It’s rather poignant therefore that this type of technology is being further advanced in the region where it first began.
“We are seeing improvements – we are seeing what we can do,” notes Bishop. “We are discovering all sorts of things. The potential is there, and some people are trying it and using it, but I am not going to say ‘this is the best thing, you are going to make a fortune’. We are just saying, ‘watch this space’ and between us, over the years, we are going to improve storage as a community.”