DAVIS, Calif. — As the University of California at Davis nears completion of its new Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine & Food Science, the university continues to add a focus on produce-related research.

UC Davis’ new campus is complete with a 1-acre garden dedicated to fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“There’s a lot of interest in food science,” said Clare Hasler, executive director of the Mondavi Institute for Wine & Food Science at UC Davis. “We’re populating the courses in record numbers.”

UC-Davis building campus for food science, wine studies

Ashley Bentley

Participants in the Culinary Institute of America’s Flavor, Quality and American Menus leadership retreat visit Wolfskill Orchard, a University of California-Davis project near Winters, Calif., on Sept. 11.

The university has the largest food science program in the country, Hasler said. The last of three new buildings is slated to open in September 2010.

Hasler and other UC Davis staff gave tour of the campus to chefs, foodservice executives and representatives from U.S. agricultural industries in conjunction with the Culinary Institute of America’s Flavor, Quality and American Menus leadership retreat Sept. 11.

Food safety, particularly microbial food safety, is a hot topic in California, Hasler said.

There’s a lot of pathogen research going on, she said.

“We’re spending more time trying to figure out where they come from,” Hasler said. “With outbreaks on fruits, vegetables and tree nuts … we’ve had quite a number of outbreaks, and we need to better prepare the public for challenges.”

The university has three programs all working toward improving food quality and safety: the Center for Fruit and Vegetable Quality, the Foods for Health Initiative and the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security.

“The Center for Fruit and Vegetable Quality has 40 faculty members, all focused on quality issues,” Hasler said.

Another hot topic in the academic world is the health value of food, including phytonutrients, nutraceuticals, functional foods and personalized food plans, Hasler said.

“There’s truly a wealth for study,” Hasler said. “We’re trying to figure out on a scientific basis the connection between chemical and health benefits so it withstands peer review.”

The university has some new additions off-campus, too. At its Wolfskill Orchard near Winters, Calif., the university has some trees that grow both almonds and peaches, as well as trees that grow almond-peaches in one piece of fruit.

“Peaches and almonds are genetically almost identical, but they have very different tree structures and very different fruit structures,” said Thomas Gradziel, professor of pomology at UC Davis.

The differences allow them to be combined in trees and in pieces of fruit.

The peach-almond combination sparked the interest of some of the chefs who attended the tour, one of whom asked about how allergens from the night might pass into the fruit.

“The allergens are within the nut, so people with allergies can still eat the peaches,” Gradziel said.

The group also toured the Center for Land-Based Learning, a nonprofit organization that develops programs to educate youth about relationship between the environment, agriculture and local communities, and the  Farm on Putah Creek, a working farm also near Winters, Calif.

“In your industry, you need to continue to strengthen that connection to nature,” said Craig McNamara of the Center for Land-Based Learning. “We encourage you to bring youth into that, because they’re going to be making the decisions.”

The center has programs in 150 California counties.

“We get the kids outside because most kids have no connection to agriculture,” said Mary Kimball, also of the center. “They make no connection between the water supply and what they eat.”

The U.S. agriculture industry can take advantage of the fact that more people than ever seem to be interested in studying food.

“Many students today are very interested in food, and very interested in going to culinary school,” Kimball said. “It’s really incredibly fulfilling for both sides. It’s not just learning about agriculture and the food system.”

Attendees of the conference toured some of the small individual farms at the center and did a comparative tasting of melons and tomatoes grown by small, local growers.