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1. Introduction

1.1 Value of horticultural perishables and their post-harvest losses

Fruits, nuts, and vegetables play a significant role in human nutrition, especially as sources of vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre, and antioxidants. Increased consumption of a variety of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis is highly recommended because of associated health benefits, which include reduced risk of some forms of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic diseases.

Both quantitative and qualitative losses occur in horticultural commodities between harvest and consumption. Qualitative losses, such as loss in edibility, nutritional quality, caloric value, and consumer acceptability of fresh produce, are much more difficult to assess than are quantitative losses. Quality standards, consumer preferences and purchasing power vary greatly across countries and cultures and these differences influence marketability and the magnitude of post-harvest losses.

Post-harvest losses vary greatly across commodity types, with production areas and the season of production. Losses of fresh fruits and vegetables in developed countries are estimated to range from 2 percent for potatoes to 23 percent for strawberries, with an overall average of 12 percent losses between production and consumption sites. In contrast, the range of produce losses in developing countries varies widely. Losses at the retail, food-service, and consumer levels are estimated at approximately 20 percent in developed countries and about 10 percent in developing countries. Overall, about one third of horticultural crops produced are never consumed by humans.

Reduction of post-harvest losses can increase food availability to the growing world population, decrease the area needed for production, and conserve natural resources. Strategies for loss prevention include: (1) use of genotypes that have longer post-harvest-life; (2) use of integrated crop management systems and Good Agricultural Practices that result in good keeping quality of the commodity; and (3) use of proper post-harvest handling practices in order to maintain the quality and safety of fresh produce.

Although minimizing post-harvest losses of already produced food is more sustainable than increasing production to compensate for these losses, less than 5 percent of the funding of agricultural research and extension programs worldwide is devoted to activities related to maintenance of produce quality and safety during post-harvest handling. This situation must be changed if success is to be achieved in reducing post-harvest losses of horticultural perishables.

1.2 Quality factors

Quality, the degree of excellence or superiority, is a combination of attributes, properties, or characteristics that give each commodity value, in terms of its intended use. The relative importance given to a specific quality attribute varies in accordance with the commodity concerned and with the individual (producer, consumer, and handler) or market concerned with quality assessment. To producers, high yields, good appearance, ease of harvest, and the ability to withstand long-distance shipping to markets are important quality attributes. Appearance, firmness, and shelf-life are important from the point of view of wholesale and retail marketers. Consumers, on the other hand, judge the quality of fresh fruits, ornamentals, and vegetables on the basis of appearance (including ‘freshness’) at the time of initial purchase. Subsequent purchases depend upon the consumer’s satisfaction in terms of flavor (eating) quality of the edible part of produce. Following is a description of the factors that contribute to the various quality attributes of fresh produce:

1.2.1 Appearance (visual) quality factors.

These may include size, shape, color, gloss, and freedom from defects and decay. Defects can originate before harvest as a result of damage by insects, diseases, birds, and hail; chemical injuries; and various blemishes (such as scars, scabs, russeting, rind staining). Post-harvest defects may be morphological, physical, physiological, or pathological.

1.2.2. Textural (feel) quality factors.

These include firmness, crispness, juiciness, mealiness, and toughness, depending on the commodity. Textural quality of horticultural crops is not only important for their eating and cooking quality but also for their shipping ability. Soft fruits cannot be shipped over long distances without substantial losses due to physical injuries. In many cases, the shipment of soft fruits necessitates that they be harvested at less than ideal maturity, from the flavor quality standpoint.

Figure 1: Oil spotting on lemons (the result of mechanical damage during the harvesting and handling of turgid lemons)

1.2.3. Flavor (eating) quality factors.

These include sweetness, sourness (acidity), astringency, bitterness, aroma, and off-flavors. Flavor quality involves perception of the tastes and aromas of many compounds. An objective analytical determination of critical components must be coupled with subjective evaluations by a taste panel to yield useful and meaningful information about the flavor quality of fresh fruits and vegetables. This approach can be used to define a minimum level of acceptability. In order to assess consumer preference for the flavor of a given commodity, large-scale testing by a representative sample of consumers is required.

1.2.4. Nutritional quality factors.

Fresh fruits and vegetables play a significant role in human nutrition, especially as sources of vitamins (Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, thiamine, niacin), minerals, and dietary fibre. Other constituents of fresh fruits and vegetables that may lower the risk of cancer and other diseases include carotenoids, flavonoids, isoflavones, phytosterols, and other phytochemicals (phytonutrients).

Figure 2: Chilling injury and symptoms of mechanical damage on plantains

Grade standards identify quality attributes in a commodity that are the basis of its use and value. Such standards, if enforced properly, are essential tools of quality assurance during marketing and provide a common language for trade among growers, handlers, processors, and receivers at terminal markets.

1.3 Safety factors

A number of factors threaten the safety of fruits and vegetables. These include naturally-occurring toxicants, such as glycoalkaloids in potatoes; natural contaminants, such as fungal toxins (mycotoxins) and bacterial toxins, and heavy metals (cadmium, lead, mercury); environmental pollutants; pesticide residues; and microbial contamination. While health authorities and scientists regard microbial contamination as the number one safety concern, many consumers rank pesticide residues as their most important safety concern.

Unless fertilized with animal and/or human waste or irrigated with water containing such waste, raw fruits and vegetables should normally be free of most human and animal enteric pathogens. Organic fertilizers, such as chicken manure, should be sterilized prior to their application in fruit and vegetable production, so as to avoid the risk of contaminating fresh produce with Salmonella, Listeria, and other pathogens. Commodities that touch the soil are more likely to be contaminated than those that do not come in contact with the soil. The best approach to achieving and maintaining the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables is to focus on limiting potential contamination during their growth, harvesting, handling, treatment, packaging and storage. Strict adherence to Good Agricultural Practices, i.e. basic food safety principles associated with minimizing biological, chemical and physical hazards from the field throughout the distribution chain of fresh fruits and vegetables; Good Hygienic Practices, i.e. conformance to sanitation and hygienic practices to the extent necessary to protect against contamination of food from direct or indirect sources, is strongly recommended to minimize microbial contamination. Careful handling and washing of all produce to be consumed raw and the strict observance of proper sanitary measures are strongly recommended to reduce microbial contamination at the food-service, retail, and consumer levels.

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