Australian Table Grape Quality Improvements Underway

1 April 2018

Work is well underway to help the Australian table grape industry consistently supply consumers with great tasting fruit.

Produce Quality Inspector, Behrang Saber, pictured here in February 2018, measuring a bunch of Crimson Seedless grapes at the Rudge Produce Laboratory in Melbourne. Each individual berry was measured for Brix, acid, size and its 3D position in the bunch.

Table grape maturity data collected from farms and supermarkets this season is currently being analysed and interim specifications are expected to be set for some varieties before next season.

The strategic levy investment project Table Grapes Supply Chain Quality 2017-2020 (TG17002), is part of the Hort Innovation Table Grape Fund.

The key objective of this three-year project is to develop robust systems that will allow the Australian table grape industry to supply high quality fruit that consistently satisfies consumer taste expectations. This will allow consumers to be confident they will get a good eating experience whenever they purchase Australian table grapes, which will encourage repeat purchasing.

Grower-Driven Research

This project was initially proposed to Hort Innovation in direct response to requests from growers.

ATGA CEO Jeff Scott says, “Over a number of years many concerned growers have approached the ATGA to see if we can do anything about immature fruit that hits the early season market. We commissioned this project to establish if there is immature fruit in market and at what level of immaturity. Every year we would like all growers to be patient and to wait until their fruit is at the required proven maturity level before they harvest their fruit. As we all know, if a consumer ‘s first buy is of immature fruit and they have an unsatisfactory response, then they won’t come back for six to eight weeks.”

A key focus of the project is to ensure that consumers will have a good eating experience every time they purchase Australian table grapes, right from the start of the season. The project aims to deliver this by:

•    Measuring maturity of fruit pre-harvest, at retail, and export.

•    Identifying maturity specifications that will enable the industry to meet market and consumer demands.

Jeff says, “We would like to see some average standards come out of this project, which will be accepted by consumers from an eating quality point of view. If we can have that consistent throughout the industry then we will have a win win. Consumers will know that when they buy Australian table grapes they will get a mature quality product, and growers should get a better return. Our aim is to have mature fruit in store whenever supermarket testing is done.”

The Project Team

Delytics Ltd has been contracted by Hort Innovation to lead this project in collaboration with the ATGA, Kitchener Partners and Rudge Produce Systems Ltd.
 
Delytics has a proven track record of developing fruit maturity specifications to improve consumer acceptance. Their achievements include helping Australian Calypso mangoes become the market leaders in 2011 and assisting Citrus Australia identify the maturity measures for the quality standards they adopted in 2014. In 2016, Delytics helped the unregulated New Zealand citrus industry increase the consumer acceptability of Navel Oranges from 67% to 96%. This dramatic increase in consumer acceptability was achieved by the industry-wide adoption of the Delytics system, which was customised to suit their requirements.

Jeff says, “What Delytics helped achieve for New Zealand navels is a good demonstration of what can happen when a whole industry works together for a common consumer-focused quality goal. I believe it’s very possible for the Australian table grape industry to achieve a similar result if the majority of our industry adheres to the maturity specifications that will be developed as part of this project.”

First Season Progress

On-farm monitoring was carried out in Emerald, Queensland from late October until late November, and in Sunraysia from mid-December to track the maturity of different varieties in various locations. Sampling also continued after harvest to help determine the optimal harvest time.

Mystery shoppers started buying random samples twice a week from three supermarkets from mid-November. The samples were measured for Brix, acid and size. By using new equipment recommended by Delytics the acid in individual berries was able to be measured from only 0.3 ml of juice.

Delytics Managing Director Mark Loeffen says, “The testing of individual berries will allow us to understand the variability of maturity within a typical bunch of table grapes. Knowing that will help us set fact-based maturity standards that will help provide consumers with a consistent good quality product.”

The fruit collection and measurement was carried out by Rudge Produce Systems, using a customised sampling protocol developed by Delytics to take into account the variability within bunches and blocks. The data was analysed by Delytics each week and then uploaded to a cloud-based platform where growers and interested industry partners could see what was happening on-farm and at retail in real-time.

Mark says, “The supermarket monitoring gives us an independent insight into the quality of table grapes at retail, which is known to strongly influence repurchasing rates. It also provides a broader picture of what is actually happening in the market, as the on-farm monitoring covers only a very small percentage of growing blocks.”

The data collected this season has provided the ATGA with objective evidence of the maturity level of fruit in market for a number of varieties. This will help the project team track consumer liking improvements as the project progresses.

Industry Support

Both Woolworths Supermarkets and Costa have demonstrated their support for this project by contributing valuable data collected at their own cost.

Woolworths has given the project team access to several seasons of non-grower identifying maturity data, which will help compare quality variations between seasons. Woolworths monitors fruit maturity in-store and expects suppliers to adhere to minimum standards.

Woolworths Agronomist Henry Fisk says. “We are very supportive of all fruit maturity initiatives. We know that when we provide customers with the best quality produce at the right offer, they'll come back and shop with us again. Making sure we have the best product in store will benefit the whole industry.”

Costa monitored two of their proprietary varieties across six blocks on three farms following the sampling protocols developed by Delytics, and provided the data to the project team to include in their industry analysis.

Wendy Stewart, Costa National QA Manager - Citrus & Grapes says, “We’ve been a strong advocate for grape maturity testing for a number of years and are very pleased to be involved in this project. We see it as a very important integral part of the table grape industry and future domestic and export markets. It will definitely benefit the industry if everyone is following a similar testing process.”

Next Steps

Interim specifications will be set for selected varieties before the start of the 2018/19 season. The scope of these specifications will be determined by the data collected and the consultation process with industry.

Monitoring is scheduled to start again in Emerald, Queensland around mid-September 2018.

Once the interim specifications are set, growers, marketers and retailers will be encouraged to adopt them from the start of next season.

Jeff Scott says, “One of the hopes of this project is that enough growers will voluntarily agree to follow the specifications so the supermarket monitoring has a more positive result next season. We want the number of retail samples that don’t meet specification drop right away. With the cooperation of the industry, we should be able to achieve that.”