SUN VALLEY, Idaho — University of Idaho researchers are working with Walmart to look at the reasons behind rejected or downgraded potato loads at the chain’s distribution centers.
Nora Olsen, professor and extension specialist at the University of Idaho, and Mike Thornton, professor of plant science at the university, explained their efforts in a Aug. 29 session at the Idaho Grower Shippers Association annual meeting.
Thornton said the research began about a year and a half ago when the Idaho Potato Commission inquired how the industry could reduce quality issues on arrival.
Large retailers, including Walmart, indicate that quality problems tend to happen when shippers switch from russet norkotahs to russet burbanks and when growers transition from old crop to new crop potatoes, he said.
Finding solutions is important not only to reduce rejections but to also deliver better quality potatoes to consumers who may see bruising when they take potatoes home from the store, Thornton said.
Tracking rejected or downgraded loads at Walmart from February to August so far, the research is funded by the Idaho Potato Commission and features the cooperation of Idaho shippers and Walmart.
Walmart has been very open about how they assess quality and what they’re seeing, Thornton said.
The battle against bruising and other defects always has been a reality, he said.
“Given how many times we lift, drop, tumble, sort, wash, and package these potatoes, it’s a miracle we get any of them into the bag without some kind of bruise or other defect,” he said.
Olsen briefed attendees on the research so far, and pointed to the importance of proper handling of potatoes in the field and packinghouse. What’s more, she said data shows that refrigerated transportation doesn’t deliver optimum set point temperatures for many loads, which can lead to deterioration of potatoes. Better ventilation of potato packaging could help arrivals, she said.
Data will be collected in the harvest through the winter to give a complete picture of the season, she said.
With data on rejections from Walmart, Olsen said that about 73% of rejected loads from the chain came from seven Walmart distribution centers, primarily located in the Southeast U.S. The peak month for rejections tracked so far was May.
“It’s not because (those distribution centers) are tougher (on quality inspections),” she said.
Instead, the higher rejection notices in that region likely is related to the length of the trip and perhaps heat and humidity in the region.