Drug-sniffing dogs are common at U.S. airports. But only 30 percent of dogs have noses that are sensitive enough to qualify for this work, and various countries have come up with their own solutions to that problem. In South Korea, officials cloned their top sniffer, a Labrador retriever named Chase, and every one of Chase’s clones has his remarkable nose. 

American law enforcement officials took a high-tech approach. They use portable, highly sensitive gas chromatography — a technology to separate and analyze compounds — to smoke out drug smugglers and potential bomb throwers. 

As it turns out, a gas chromatograph can also stand in for an Italian grandmother. 

Simona Vallone, a UC Davis postdoctoral researcher, is part of a team of scientists finding ways that gas chromatography can be combined with newer technologies to assess the ripeness of fruit. The goal is to improve American eating habits by making supermarket produce as full of flavor and scent as the food Vallone remembers from her childhood in Naples, Italy.

“I grew up in a situation where I was able to eat fruits and vegetables that were no more than a day old,” she said. “We had stands where my mom and my grandma would buy fruits and vegetables. You could find produce that had just peaked. There was better quality and better flavor.”

Many Americans grew up on standard supermarket produce, and that meant tasteless tomatoes sometimes sprayed with a liberal amount of chemicals and picked while they were still green so they would have a longer shelf life. Only in the last decade or two, as food co-ops and farmers markets have spread across the country, did many people learn to appreciate the flavor of a peach or a tomato the way their grandparents did.

In Italy, Vallone watched the process in reverse as agribusiness began to take the place of the farmer pruning his family’s vines under the golden Mediterranean sun.

“Unfortunately, the romantic image of Italy isn’t entirely real,” Vallone laughed. “I grew up in that situation, with farmers getting their produce to small markets. As the market became bigger, things changed. Handling that large amount of produce makes it impossible to have such a short chain from grower to distribution, so that means longer handling and storing produce in cold rooms, which also affects flavor. I know both sides from Italy.”