October 02, 2018

With food safety and quality a continual topic of importance, researcher finds unique ways to boost and protect strawberry crops

by Hannah Erickson

Ruplala ChoudharyCARBONDALE, Ill. — Food production continues to be an important topic of discussion, but so does food safety. That’s why Ruplal Choudhary, bioprocess engineer and associate professor of plant, soil and agricultural systems at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is addressing both topics in a small, but very important fruit: strawberries.

The United States is the largest producer of strawberries in the world, with the average American consuming nearly 8 pounds of strawberries per year. Of the total strawberry production, 81 percent comes from fresh markets, valuing in at about $2.6 billion. But as one of the most susceptible foods prone to damage and spoilage, growers and sellers continually struggle with food safety and quality production.

Following several years of berry research, Choudhary is now completing a three-year study funded by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Services and Illinois Department of Agriculture, to find healthful ways to increase strawberry production.

Improving yield and growth of strawberries

As a post-harvest researcher, Choudhary looks for specific ways to improve the crop’s growth and development. To do this, he imported and experimented with unique deep-sea ocean minerals from Taiwan.

“[The ocean minerals] are considered rich in organic minerals and can improve the nutrients in soil for better yield and growth of strawberries,” Choudhary said.

As a unique study, the results were found to significantly improve the yield and the quality of the strawberries.

“Nobody had tried this with strawberries. We tried, and we found that it works,” Choudhary said.

The team tested the strawberries with the ocean minerals while simultaneously examining the use of healthy bacteria at the root level of the strawberries. This bacteria worked to convert available nitrogen into something useful for the soil and plant, Choudhary explained. The ocean mineral and bio-inoculant procedure were combined to find the best key for success.

 “The ocean mineral is improving the yield, but the bio-inoculants improves the quality, so they work together,” Choudhary said.

Coating materials may improve food-safety

Because of the constant awareness of food safety concerns, Choudhary is  also looking to see if his work has caused any problematic molecular symptoms to the strawberries. He is working on an overlapping study that carefully watches for any signs of resulting problems from the added minerals.

“So far in the ocean-mineral trial we have tested, we haven’t found any difference between the ocean-mineral treated [crops], as opposed to non-treated crops,” Choudhary said. “They look normal.”

Choudhary has also spent considerable time studying coating materials that improve the strawberries’ shelf-life and health.  This coating material works to prevent growth of fungal and bacterial pathogens on the berries, thus preserving the food safety and quality.

Assisting local growers

Choudhary has several goals for the research, but one of the main purposes is to assist local growers with increased production and quality. While local berries are sweet, they tend to have a short shelf-life and are prone to spoilage. This negatively impacts the distribution and profit for local growers.

“We have also done some outreach, invited different growers in the region to see different field crops and how we cover the crops in the fall, and in the spring when they are growing,” Choudhary said.

While the strawberry research was done on local, Southern Illinois crops, Choudhary believes the results will translate to other regions as well, providing for some differences depending on the variety of berry.

Choudhary has published his research in a variety of journals, as well as presenting at conferences, such as the Institute of Food Technologists and the International Association of Food Protection. Choudhary plans to continue his strawberry research, with funding still available until 2021.