USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) – Pacific West Area

Agency/Department

FLC Region

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Address

800 Buchanan Street
Albany, CA 94710
United States

Laboratory Representative

Description

With 47 research units at 21 locations and several additional worksites where ARS employees are located throughout eight states, the Pacific West Area (PWA) is the largest and most diverse of the eight Areas in ARS.  There are 375 scientist positions in PWA and total workforce of about 1,400 employees.  Research in the PWA is conducted in 21 of the 22 ARS National Programs and addresses these research priorities:

1) Climate Change

2) Food Safety

3) Children's Nutrition / Health

4) Global Food Security

5) Bioenergy

LabTech in your Life:  https://www.federallabs.org/successes/labtech-in-your-life

USDA Annual Reports in Technology Transfer: https://www.ars.usda.gov/office-of-technology-transfer/tt-reports

USDA ARS Media:  https://www.ars.usda.gov/news-events/news-events

Mission

ARS conducts research to develop and transfer solutions to agricultural problems of high national priority and provide information access and dissemination in order to:

  • Ensure high-quality safe food and other agricultural products;
  • Assess the nutritional needs of Americans;
  • Sustain a competitive agricultural economy;
  • Enhance the natural resource base and the environment;
  • Provide economic opportunities for rural citizens, communities, and society as a whole.
  • Provide the infrastructure necessary to create and maintain a diversified workplace.

Research in the Pacific West Area addresses these goals.

Available Technologies
Displaying 1 - 10 of 16
Barley Mutant Lines Having Grain With Ultra-High Beta Glucan Content
Bioassay for Cell Conditioned Media
Genetically Modified Babesia Parasites Expressing Protective Tick Antigens and Uses Thereof
High Affinity Monoclonal Antibodies for Detection of Shiga Toxin 2 (STX2)
High-Affinity Monoclonal Antibodies For Botulinum Toxin Type B
In Vitro Parasite Feeding System
In-Row Rotary Cultivator
Pseudomonas Fluorescens 2-79 With Genes For Biosynthesis of Pyrrolnitrin Improves Biocontrol Activity
Pseudomonas Fluorescens Inhibit Annual Bluegrass and Rough Bluegrass Root Growth and Germination
Pseudomonas Species for Weed Suppression and Annual Grass Weed Management

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Programs

ARS research is organized into National Programs. These programs serve to bring coordination, communication, and empowerment to approximately 690 research projects carried out by ARS. The National Programs focus on the relevance, impact, and quality of ARS research. Check out the National Programs' website here:

Lab Representatives
Facilities
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Western Regional Research Center (WRRC)
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No publications for this lab
Success Stories
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Sometimes we may take for granted the many food-related conveniences we enjoy every day. Frozen foods are one of those modern-day conveniences that we tend not to think about. The freezer section in many grocery stores can span two or more aisles, with everything from quick-frozen fruits and vegetables to meat, poultry, and seafood, to completely prepared meals and desserts—including classic comfort foods. Today you can also find fully prepared dishes like ready-to-bake chicken pot pies, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, and classic apple pies. You can even find “homemade” bread ready to thaw and bake—even Grandma would be envious of these gems!

More than 80 years ago in 1925, American inventor Clarence Birdseye (I’m sure you’ve heard the name) started the frozen food industry when he quick-froze fish on a refrigerated moving belt. This innovation started an entirely new industry. Large-scale commercial production of frozen foods began a few years later when a major processor bought Birdseye’s patents and began marketing frozen fruits and vegetables. The quality of frozen foods then wasn’t what it is now, yet the industry grew slowly but steadily. A resurgence of refrigerators and home freezers just after World War II increased the demand for frozen food and spurred its production to more than one billion pounds.

With increased product demand came increased consumer demands for higher quality foods. Consumers complained about the loss in flavor and the changes in color and texture. The industry also had its own concerns about the safety and nutritional value of frozen foods and in the late 1940s came to ARS’s Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) in Albany, California, for help.

WRRC scientists began the Time-Temperature-Tolerance (TTT) Project with the goal of improving frozen food. WRRC scientists built a freezer plant in which to test the food freezing process. The Center houses a full-scale pilot plant that allows researchers to simulate real-world food processing/manufacturing processes. They began testing every step in the process, including selecting the right crop variety, crop handling between field and plant, blanching and freezing, packaging and storing, and transporting products to the market. This project allowed ARS scientists to help the industry solve production problems. The scientists tested frozen fruit, orange juice, vegetables, poultry, prepared food, and bakery items. ARS scientists’ creativity led to the invention of processing equipment to improve frozen products and also frozen food standards and practices that ensured the survival and growth of America's frozen food industry.

On December 11, 2002, the American Chemical Society (ACS) designated WRRC  with National Historic Chemical Landmark standing for its groundbreaking frozen foods research related to time-temperature tolerance. Incidentally, WRRC received its second ACS Landmark recognition in August 2013 for its pioneering research in flavor chemistry. It is the only research center to have received two of this highly regarded award.

Today, we get to enjoy the unbelievable variety of high-quality frozen foods that are safe and nutritious—all thanks to ARS scientists!

This article was originally published in the January 2014 edition of the USDA’s ARS & You newsletter. To view, click here.

(Photo by Scott Bauer/Courtesy of USDA)


From Shrub to Rubber

Rubber is usually thought of as a substance made from petroleum or from rubber trees grown in Asia. But rubber can be also produced from a U.S. domestic plant called guayule. Guayule is a woody desert shrub cultivated in the southwestern United States as a source of natural rubber (latex), organic resins, and high-energy biofuel feedstock from crop residue.

ARS chemist Colleen McMahan and her lab colleagues, molecular biologists Grisel Ponciano, Niu Dong, and Dante Placido, and technician Trinh Huynh, in Albany, California, developed improved guayule for rubber production. In 2017, about 3,200 experimental guayule plants were delivered to Bridgestone Americas in Eloy, Arizona, for field testing.

Guayule plants in an ARS
research greenhouse.
 Photo by Byung-guk Kang.

“About 3 years ago, Bridgestone purchased 180 acres in Arizona and set up a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to developing guayule as a U.S. source of natural rubber,” says McMahan. At that time, Bridgestone Americas and ARS’s Bioproducts Research Unit entered into a research agreement to evaluate ARS genetically modified guayule that might provide increased yield.

“The genetic modification dramatically increased rubber content in the lab, and in partnership with Bridgestone, we will test if that translates to field conditions,” says McMahan.

This research technology demonstrated that a modern passenger tire can be made from U.S.-grown guayule natural rubber. Another partner, Cooper Tires, manufactured a demo tire, according to McMahan. In 2017, the group completed work under a 5-year USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) awarded grant which was led by Cooper Tires, with significant ARS involvement.

“ARS did genome sequencing for guayule, rubber biochemistry studies, and agronomics work, including a major irrigation study,” says McMahan. “In 2017, another NIFA grant was awarded for work on guayule and guar. This one, led by the University of Arizona, is just starting. ARS scientists in Maricopa, Arizona, will be doing germplasm phenotyping, and our lab will be doing crop improvement.”

The tires have passed testing required by the U.S. Department of Transportation and more stringent internal industry tests. Guayule-rubber tires, with exceptional performance, have been established as meeting consumer requirements for a biobased rubber tire.

Cooper Tires has manufactured
a demo tire made from
guayule-derived rubber.
(Photo credit: Colleen McMahan,
USDA-ARS)

“Unfortunately, the supply of guayule-derived rubber is still limited, and we continue to focus on improving the yield of rubber from guayule and on sustainability,” says McMahan. “You need about 4 mature plants to yield enough rubber for a passenger tire, so with current yields, you can get about 500 guayule tires per acre. Both of those figures assume 100-percent guayule tires, which is unlikely. Commercialization would probably proceed with a lower percentage of guayule, which could get 1,000 tires per acre.”

Each of these sectors of bioproducing—food, fuel, and rubber products—aims to improve consumers’ future by adding healthy foods and reducing our dependence on petroleum.—By Sharon Durham, ARS Office of Communications.

This article was originally published in the March 2017 issue of the USDA's AgResearch Magazine. To view, click here

Quality and Stability of Frozen Foods

A Problem With Frozen Foods

During World War II a number of companies produced frozen foods, largely because food rationing and a shortage of canned goods tempted consumers to try whatever was available. By the end of the war there were 45 companies in the field, and as price controls were gradually removed by the Office of Price Administration (OPA) beginning in May 1946, the number of frozen food producers almost doubled.

Unfortunately, many packers froze almost anything that would freeze, without regard for the quality of the product that reached the consumer. Poor color and flavor, rancidity, inedible pre-cooked dinners, and even mold turned the consumer away from frozen foods as fresh and canned goods became more available. As a result, between 1946 and 1947, the production of frozen foods dropped 87 percent in a single year!

United States Agriculture Turns to Science

After this debacle the frozen food industry realized that some of its problems could benefit from careful scientific analysis. Clearly, the commercial freezing of food products is not a simple process; it was ignorance of the basic chemistry of the underlying processes that led to poor quality and the refusal of the consumer to buy frozen products.

Helmut C. Diehl, director of the Refrigeration Research Foundation, approached the United States Department of Agriculture with recommendations that it undertake a thorough investigation of the entire matter. He pledged the full financial support of the industry to this endeavor.

The project was assigned to the Western Regional Research Laboratory [now the Western Regional Research Center (WRRC)] in Albany, California, and a large staff of chemists, food technologists, and engineers was assembled. Specialized cold-storage rooms were designed and constructed. Capable of storage temperatures from –30 °F to +40 °F, these rooms could carefully duplicate the fluctuating temperatures that were the key focus of the investigation, while novel refrigeration systems could move cold air over the test foods, year after year, through many different cycles.

In close consultation with the frozen food industry, the WRRC staff worked from 1948 to 1965 to study frozen fruits, juices, vegetables, poultry, beef, precooked foods, and bakery products. The ideal scenario for the industry would be one in which the newly frozen food would forever be held in a constant low-temperature environment, generally considered at the time to be 0 °F (or lower). Much of the problem, however, lay in what happened to frozen foods between the time they left the plant and the time they were purchased by the consumer.

For practical purposes, the question was to determine what variance in the ideal temperature a product could withstand without affecting its quality. That is, according to researchers at the WRRC, “what is the tolerance of a frozen food to adverse conditions, measured in terms of time and temperature combinations?”

The newly named “time-temperature tolerance” or “T-TT” work studied changes in frozen foods as they proceeded through the distribution system, determined the deviations in the system that would still allow a satisfactory consumer product, and made recommendations for improving the distribution system itself. Once these results were available, the WRRC scientists intended to improve the selection, processing, and packaging of frozen foods so that they would better withstand adverse conditions in the distribution system. They also looked for suitable tests that could be applied to a frozen product anywhere in the distribution system to see what changes may have occurred and whether the products were still commercially acceptable when they reached the retail market. It was the beginning of a massive and arduous effort of many people over a long period of time as they attacked a complex problem using basic science and engineering.

Defining “Quality”

While it is relatively easy to measure “stability” in quantitative terms, the same is not true for “quality,” which is notoriously vague and elusive. Initially, sensory panels of people trained to use sight, smell, and taste were used to provide some measure of “quality.” But a new instrumentation technique was just becoming available to researchers in the early 1950s. As a method of analyzing even the trace amounts of individual chemical components in a mixture, gas chromatography (GC) quickly became the method of choice in studying aroma and flavor because WRRC Quality and Stability of Frozen Foods Time-Temperature Tolerance Studies and Their Significance it could detect which compounds were responsible for the sensory effects, and how much of each component was present. Now that the compounds responsible for off-flavor and rancidity could be measured, the WRRC staff developed many new uses for GC in flavor and food chemistry. They were particularly successful in sampling the space above a frozen food and injecting this directly into the GC. This technique, now known as “static headspace sampling,” is still a standard in the food industry.

Chemical Reactions at Low Temperatures

Even before the T-TT work began, it was known that better frozen food quality results from blanching, the process in which vegetables are briefly heated in hot water or steam. The intent is to deactivate the enzyme peroxidase, thought to be the culprit in post-freezing degradation. T-TT studies led to a rapid, reliable, and convenient assay for peroxidase, and subsequently established the appropriate blanching parameters for individual fruits and vegetables.

As the range of foods tested in the T-TT work expanded, it became apparent that the elimination of peroxidase activity was neither necessary nor desirable during the blanching of some foods. In some cases, the index of proper blanching became the inactivation of catalase, a process that was gentler than that required for inactivation of peroxidase. In other cases, yet another enzyme, lipoxygenase, was found to be the major promoter of reduced quality. Blanching times were considerably shorter for this enzyme. Thus, what was once thought to be a single and simple blanching process was now expanded to include detailed procedures for different foods, all of which contributed to higher food quality for consumers.

Major Scientific Results from the T-TT Program

Frozen-food research had begun long before the initiation of the T-TT program, but it had been carried out by a variety of groups. This led to the fragmentation of useful information and many unanswered questions. The WRRC program was the first large-scale systematic investigation of the problems of delivering a quality product to the consumer. Among the innovative results emanating from the WRRC work were:

  • Generating practical working models for a large variety of frozen foods.
  • Predicting the stability and quality of the frozen food over time by using mathematical models.
  • Discovering that 0 °F is the critical temperature to maintain critical stability in most frozen foods, a result that is still followed today in most household freezers.
  • Recommending to the transportation industry the maximum time different foods could be warmed above 0 °F without significant deterioration.
  • Identifying specific aroma compounds for a wide variety of foods.
  • Establishing analytical methods for measuring “quality.” 
  • Establishing the stability periods for frozen foods.
  • Inventing “dehydrofreezing,” wherein certain foods, such as potatoes, are partially dehydrated before freezing, resulting in financial savings because of reduced volume and weight.
  • Improving the blanching process for the preparation of frozen vegetables including the Individual Quick Blanching (IQB) and the Vibrating IQB cooler.
  • Discovering that for some foods, notably orange juice and onions, the addition rather than the removal of an enzyme was important for quality and stability.
  • Eliminating Salmonella contamination in fresh and frozen liquid egg products.

Societal Impact of the T-TT Program

In 1950, when the T-TT studies were just underway, the frozen food industry had $500 million in sales. That number grew to $6.245 billion in 1966 and reached $68 billion in 1999. As the twentieth century ended, there were 40 million freezers and 120 million refrigerators in American homes. Over 2 million people were employed by 550 major frozen food producers, and there was a warehouse capacity of 3 billion cubic feet, with more than eight billion pounds of frozen foods in storage. One-quarter of all U.S. food exports are frozen foods, with a value of some $5 billion. The WRRC played a major part in the mobilization of scientific resources dedicated to the reproducible and safe production of high-quality, nutritious frozen foods for people everywhere to enjoy. The knowledge developed at WRRC during studies of frozen food stability and quality has since been applied to other processing and preservation techniques, to the development of value-added food products, and to food safety improvements by WRRC and other governmental, academic, and industrial research and development facilities.

Personal health in rural Alaskan communities is threatened by energy costs and limited access to clean water, wastewater management, and adequate nutrition. Fuel-based energy systems are significant factors in determining local accessibility to clean water, sanitation, and food. Increasing fuel costs induce a scarcity of access and impact residents’ health. The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences (SNRAS), NASA Ames Research Center, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have joined forces to develop high-efficiency, low energy-consuming techniques for water treatment and food production in rural circumpolar communities. Methods intended for the exploration of space and the establishment of settlements on the moon or Mars will ultimately benefit Earth’s communities in the circumpolar north.

In the initial phase of collaboration, funded by USDA ARS, researchers from NASA Ames and SNRAS tested a simple, reliable, low-energy sewage treatment system to recycle wastewater for use in food production and other reuse options in communities. The system extracted up to 70% of the water from sewage and rejected up to 92% of ions in the sewage with no carryover of toxic effects. Biological testing shows that plant growth using recovered water in the nutrient solution was equivalent to that using high-purity distilled water.

With successful demonstration that the low energy-consuming wastewater treatment system can provide safe water for communities and food production, the team is ready to move forward to a full-scale production testbed. The SNRAS/NASA Ames team will design a prototype to match water processing rates and food production to meet rural community sanitation needs and nutritional preferences. This system will be operated at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where long-term performance will be validated and the operational needs of the system determined. The testbed will be part of the university education and operator training program.

“Forgotten Alaska” has long awaited this technology to augment the traditional subsistence network and maintain healthy living in the circumpolar north.