SSC Stays the Course

NC State’s Sensory Service Center (SSC) engages the campus community with regular “taste tests” and serves clients around the world with outstanding product testing and development. What often starts with faculty, staff and students and consumers around the Research Triangle area giving their opinions on food and drink samples in small cups ends up as new or improved products sitting on the shelves of retailers nationwide.

Along with many other campus entities, the SSC necessarily pivoted due to the advent of COVID-19 and its impact on the university. Dr. MaryAnne Drake and her team of dedicated staff and graduate students transitioned the center’s operations in a way that allowed for high-quality research and education to continue, seamlessly serving customers and the campus community alike.

“What we do has not changed at all, but how we do it has changed tremendously,” said Drake, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Food Science. “We’ve worked together with various facets of the university, NC State Institutional Review Board (IRB) and our clients to ensure that we’re able to maintain the utmost safety measures and COVID-19 compliance.”

Changes in Taste Testing

Tests are generally run with consumers sitting inside walled-off booths on the first floor of Schaub Hall (unless they are take-home tests). Even before COVID-19 hit, the SSC ran their tests with strict food safety protocols, including gloves, hair coverings and lab coats for those providing samples to consumers. During February and March 2020, the SSC started providing hand sanitizer to consumers and mandated masks for everyone working in the center’s kitchen.

When the university shut down, official sensory testing halted due to the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections, which governs research with human subjects at NC State, also temporarily closing. Testing resumed in July 2020. All consumer testing is now done outside, with researchers and participants required to wear personal protective equipment — researchers wear masks, face shields and gloves, and participants must wear masks. Each test takes nearly 1.5 hours to set up and 1.5 hours to break down.

Drake and all of her graduate students get COVID-19 testing every week, and researchers must complete a temperature scan the day of the taste test.

Interactions between participants and researchers are minimized during the taste test. When participants check in, they are first provided hand sanitizer. After they have sanitized their hands, they show their ID to a researcher through a plastic shield. During the taste test, participants pick up their own samples from additional folding tables for contactless transfer of samples. Researchers do not come within eight feet of participants to hand out samples.

The tests can be completed on a smartphone or iPad, and participants have the option to use their personal device for the test. If a participant decides to use an SSC iPad, it is thoroughly sanitized per CDC guidelines in between uses. Water, crackers and cutlery provided to participants for the purpose of the test are individually packaged and disposed of after each participant.

All taste tests take about 10-20 minutes and seating times are scheduled 30 minutes apart to allow ample time for cleaning and sanitizing of the testing area. Tables and chairs are completely wiped down between participants. Cones and markers are used to designate where participants can and cannot stand in order to maintain eight feet of social distance. No more than 10-15 participants are scheduled for each 30-minute timeslot. The flow of traffic for participants is one-directional and marked using plastic arrows laid on the ground. Traffic cones are used to indicate where participants can stand or sit.

“I think this really boils down to where there’s a will, there’s a way,” said Drake. “The university, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the IRB have been very supportive in the face of challenges. We have a lot of companies that really need our services, and a lot of research that needs to get done, and the students in my lab have been absolutely outstanding and have gotten it done, time and time again.”

Impact on Graduate Students

Graduate students have been working diligently on a daily basis to keep the SSC up and running and to provide the highest level of service to both customers and consumers. Many of their classes transitioned to an online or hybrid format, and changes in testing protocols necessitated an increased workload. The students are taking these challenges in stride.

“Dr. Drake has been an amazing mentor through it all making sure we always had access to masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, hand soap and Lysol spray. I was also allowed to take my final class (vitamin metabolism) in person with social distancing measures in place Fall 2020,” said Heather Keefer, a graduate research assistant in the SSC. “I feel really blessed to have been at NC State because I know many COVID-19 experiences have been horrible.”

Clara Racette, also a graduate research assistant, saw her studies and research impacted by COVID-19. Her research is largely based in consumer perception of dairy products, part of which involves bringing consumers to campus to taste products. The final piece of her thesis project, a consumer test to cross-validate online survey results, was scheduled to run in April 2020. Due to the pandemic, she was unable to get this critical consumer data until October 2020, which changed the trajectory of her research and graduation.

Racette’s research projects had to transition from traditional in-person consumer testing to an at-home format. This involved carefully designing ballots that would minimize bias and variation from a home testing environment, where factors like lighting and distractions are out of the student’s control. 

“Fortunately, I had a lot of support from my advisor, Dr. MaryAnne Drake, and from my fellow students that made my research possible and we ended up getting great results from the test,” said Racette. “If anything, this experience has made me feel better prepared for a career in the food industry, as I’ve proven that I can adapt to changing circumstances and work through difficult problems. I’ve gotten a unique experience to think critically, communicate with a wide range of audiences, and develop safe and efficient testing procedures from the ground up.”

The work of graduate students has helped the SSC get back up to speed in an amazing way. In August 2020, students were running 10 people through home-usage test (HUT) sample pickup every 30 minutes, and six people every 30 minutes for in-person taste tests. Thanks to the group’s hard work and continued efforts on innovation, they have safely increased that number to 25 people every 30 minutes for HUTs and 15 people every 30 minutes for in-person tests.

Where the SSC is Now

With many positive developments in the face of COVID-19, consumer testing levels have started to rise for the SSC. The SSC is conducting tests at 85% of where the center was prior to the pandemic, and is working with many companies and conducting numerous graduate student research activities each month.

“Companies are getting back up to speed and we’re responding appropriately,” said Drake. “With or without restrictions, we meet consumer needs and surpass expectations. We’re well on our way to getting back to full capacity testing, even if that looks very different from previous years.”

One recent test involved a product for children. Current restrictions mandate that children cannot come on campus for testing, so parents/guardians were required to pick up samples from the SSC and take them home. Graduate students with the SSC then worked with children individually via Zoom, as children must give informed consent under current guidelines for working with human subjects. 93 children tasted two samples and completed two Zoom meetings with SSC staff.

Under normal conditions, this test would be completed over the duration of three evenings with the involvement of about eight graduate students. Now, it takes Drake and every graduate student, including those working in food chemistry and processing, seven days to complete the entire test. This is just one example of the huge amount of effort that everyone involved in the SSC has been putting in over the past year.

“We are committed to getting our entire team vaccinated against COVID-19, and it’s already been decided that SSC students and staff will continue to wear masks during consumer testing to keep everyone safe,” said Racette. “We will also continue to utilize stringent cleaning and safety procedures whether we’re working inside or outside to help consumers feel safe and comfortable while participating in taste tests. While not everyone will feel comfortable returning to indoor taste tests, we’ve heard from a lot of our taste testers that they are eager for things to return to the way they were before the pandemic, so we’re hopeful that we can use the testing booths again in the near future.” 

What’s Next

With the university anticipating a return to normal operations for the start of the fall 2021 semester, excitement is growing within the SSC. Many product tests and graduate student research projects are coming up, including ones for dairy and other food products.

Taste tests will still be conducted outside, and the SSC is working hard to be back at full capacity.

“This entire experience has provided invaluable opportunities to me and my graduate students,” said Drake. “That’s the beauty of doing this type of work, even if things look a little bit different. We have a think and can do attitude. We get used to getting through these challenges, we help out our stakeholders, provide an excellent education to our students, and help fulfill the university’s mission.” 

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