Seed industry looks to improve tasteAs grower-shippers continually improve their offerings by marketing produce in new types of packages, those that try to perfect the seeds before planting are eying future tastes and use.

At an early May conference on produce technology that followed United Fresh Produce Association’s United Fresh 2011 in New Orleans, produce industry leaders saw how changes in packaging and supply chain innovation can help companies garner consumer attention. An area showing promise to help improve the taste of produce involves changes in pre- and post-harvest technology.

In discussing how modern seed companies are changing to survive tomorrow’s marketplace, James Zarndt, the Oxnard, Calif.-based director of business development for Monsanto Co., said Monsanto is investing heavily into fruit and vegetable research and development.

The St. Louis company now invests more in fruit and vegetable seed research than in row crop research. That’s quite a change, considering seed companies have traditionally invested more effort into corn, soybeans, cotton and oil seeds.

Zarndt said such a change represents a tremendous investment. He said Monsanto spends a lot of time with retailers and foodservice operators, trying to determine what their buyers need in produce.

“Tomorrow, the survivors and successful seed companies will be delivering not only what our grower customers want, but what the end-users want,” he said. “We are trying to get closer to the retailer and foodservice people to understand what they want so we don’t waste our money or our time.”

One big effort is breeding better-tasting winter tomatoes — fruit that travels well, possesses the taste and aroma of summer tomatoes and, as Zarndt says, doesn’t have that cardboard texture that shoppers don’t find in the summer.

Improving nutrient density is another area. Saying he didn’t want to embarrass anyone, Zarndt declined to name any specific commodities, but said Monsanto is working on improving the nutrition in “certain species that are out there that are consumed in great quantities but aren’t necessarily the poster children for high levels of nutrition.”

Broccoli is being bred with the higher nutrition characteristics of a broccoli strain native to Sicily, and Monsanto is trying to upgrade the taste profile of offshore cantaloupe to the same taste as summer melons.

In another session, Robert Verloop, executive vice president of marketing for Naturipe Farms LLC, discussed how the Naples, Fla.-based berry marketer introduced a convenience pack of blueberries.

He said Naturipe looked to the snack food industry to gain lessons on packaging that successfully attracts shopper interest.

One thing that was dismaying, however, was reaction by some retailers to the concept of a blueberry snack line.

“We are constantly amazed at the barriers we as an industry put in front of ourselves,” he said. “When we talked with retailers over the last year or two, when we showed them our new product, the first thing they asked was what’s the cost. They went over the shrink and margins. They unsold it before we had a chance to sell it.”

If produce marketers can deliver consistency in product texture and packaging, provide those products to foodservice and then increase the products’ availability in retail stores, the industry can help encourage children to eat healthier products in more convenient ways.