Absent the title, Lee said he’s really part food scientist, part statistician and part psychologist. His job is to lead consumer sensory testing of new vegetable varieties being developed by Seminis.
“In the past two years, this team, which I belong to, has spent a lot of time on tomato flavor research, a lot of time,” he said during a field day at Monsanto’s Woodland, Calif., vegetable research facility, Aug. 14. “Our No. 1 job is tomato flavor.”
But that’s not to say that other varieties get ignored. A week ago, for example, Lee said he led a sensory test on melon varieties where trained panelists were asked to rank differences between samples.
Lee’s evaluations are part of what goes into developing new vegetable varieties that not only offer grower-shipper benefits but also consumer benefits.
In fact, Seminis has an entire department that focuses on consumer research and development.
During the past few years, the seed division has begun working with members of the produce industry to develop and market specific varieties with identified consumer benefits as branded products, said Jim Zarndt, consumer benefits business lead.
Beneforté broccoli, for example, contains two to three times the levels of glucoraphanin, a plant-based or phytonutrient, than other broccoli varieties, he said. The phytonutrient helps boost beneficial antioxidant enzyme levels.
It is marketed in partnership with Apio Inc., Guadalupe, Calif., as a fresh-cut product under its Eat Smart brand.
Syngenta Seeds Inc,, which until recently marketed its vegetable seeds under the Rogers label, has taken a slightly different approach.
It has a small number of exclusive arrangements with grower-packer-shippers for specific varieties with unique characteristics, said Mark Jirak, North American portfolio manager for melon, squash and cucumbers who’s based in Atchison, Kan.
But it’s up to the grower-packer-shipper to develop a brand and marketing strategy, he said
Matori Farms, Aguila, Ariz., for example, has an exclusive arrangement for a guanipa-type melon it markets as Lemondrop under the Kandy brand, Jirak said.
One of Syngenta’s more unique endeavors is Dulcinea Farms LLC, Ladera Ranch, Calif., which it founded as a subsidiary to grow and market unique branded produce items, he said.
Among its offerings are PureHeart mini-seedless watermelons, Tuscan cantaloupes as well as specialty tomatoes.
The variety behind PureHeart brand, Petite Perfection, was bred by Xingping Zhang, Syngenta global crop development head of watermelon.
“We recognized what the grower may want and put it together with the consumer, and we knew the challenges as well,” Zhang said. “We created a new category with more convenience, more flavor and more profit.”
Zhang also is involved in breeding standard-sized seedless watermelons, which he showcased during the company’s annual trials week at its Woodland vegetable research station in mid-August.
What Zhang said he found refreshing were the number of representatives from large grocery chains and club stores who attended and tasted the different varieties.
“I think the people who were here were extremely positive,” he said, adding he heard the comment, “wow, this is exactly what we’re looking for.”
Zhang said he asked the representatives whether they would recommend some of the varieties they tasted to suppliers, and they replied, “No.”
But the retailers did say they could monitor consumer response and repeat purchases through loyalty cards and club membership cards.