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April 2003


An Iowa State University research team is developing a detection method for a toxin that could possibly become a terrorist threat via agricultural products. Vomitoxin is a toxin that comes from a fungus that infects grain. How the toxin infects grain is not yet known, making its presence very difficult to predict, said Suzanne Hendrich, associate dean of the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and professor of food science and human nutrition. "If we can develop more rapid methods to detect this toxin, we can more easily prevent deliberate or natural contamination by this toxin from harming people," Hendrich said. Vomitoxin can cause vomiting if ingested in high doses, and Hendrich said it is likely to suppress immune function in smaller doses, making people more susceptible to infectious diseases. To develop rapid methods to detect vomitoxin in foods (grains and grain products mainly), Hendrich said researchers are attempting to develop antibodies to the toxin. This should allow them to standardize a method of detecting vomitoxin based on the detection of the antibody. Hendrich said they also are developing a detection method based on light-absorbing properties of vomitoxin. For more information, contact Hendrich, (515) 294-0859; or Bridget Bailey, News Service, (515) 294-6881.

Increasingly, agricultural processors are turning to quality assurance systems to help them communicate with consumers about special traits and quality aspects of their products. A recent study at Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development looks at the variety and effectiveness of quality assurance systems and provides examples of systems currently in use. The researchers analyzed whether a buyer of agricultural outputs should implement a quality assurance system as a way to communicate quality to their potential customers, and, if implemented, how much stringency is necessary to make the system worthwhile. Finding the optimal amount of quality assurance depends upon several factors. First, it depends on whether the assured attribute is discernable to the consumer, for example, if the taste of the product is enhanced by the assured trait. The price premium paid for the attribute and the cost of the quality control are also determining factors. In other words, does the price premium more than pay for assuring consumers that the trait is present in every product sample? Finally, the damage that would be caused by false certification is an important factor. A processor that needs the strictest quality assurance can expect to pay more in order to gain more reliability. The study found that the private sector appears able to create flexible and effective quality assurance systems. The paper, "Optimal Quality Assurance Systems for Agricultural Outputs," is available at Contact Bruce Babcock, CARD, (515) 294-6785; or Sandy Clarke, CARD Communications, (515) 294-6257.

When an animal in Iowa needs to be checked for a virus, bacteria, toxin, allergen or disease, the test most likely is performed and the diagnosis confirmed at Iowa State University's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL). The laboratory helps veterinarians and their clients detect and prevent disease by providing diagnostic services. In an average year, the VDL manages about 50,000 cases and performs about 1.2 million tests. A critical function of the lab is the early detection of foreign animal diseases, such as foot and mouth disease or Newcastle disease. To expand and enhance the lab's biosecurity, a $3.2 million construction project is under way. "Upgrades will reduce the risk of cross-contamination within the laboratory and of further dissemination of animal diseases," said VDL director Dr. Gary Osweiler, professor of veterinary diagnostic and production animal medicine. "The laboratory also will be better prepared to counter the introduction of foreign animal diseases to Iowa." A critical part of the VDL upgrade is the addition of a BL3 (biosafety level three) containment area for testing specimens contaminated with potentially infectious or toxic agents, Osweiler said. Containment features will include high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA)-filtered biosafety cabinets, a collection tank for liquids from high-risk animals examined on site, shower-in/shower-out access, and a pass-through autoclave for sterilization of clothing, boots and instruments. A covered unloading area will be equipped for disinfecting vehicles suspected of being contaminated with a foreign animal disease or bioterrorist disease agent. It's expected that the project will be completed in October. Contact Osweiler, (515) 294-1950; or Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778.

A new Iowa State University Web site shows Iowa farmers the impact of different tillage practices on residue cover and soil erosion losses in their fields. "On the Web site, farmers enter farm-specific management practices in an easy-to-use interactive program," said Mahdi Al-Kaisi, soil extension specialist and assistant professor of agronomy. "The site uses this information to generate charts demonstrating residue and soil losses for individual fields." In addition to the dynamic charts, the site provides information and educational materials on soil management, conservation practices, erosion control, residue management and related soil and water quality information. This project is a joint effort between ISU Agronomy Extension, ISU Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Extension and the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service. Visit "Soil Management and Conservation Practices: Calculations of Iowa Soil Loss and Residue Cover" at Contact Al-Kaisi, (515) 294-1890; or Melea Reicks Licht, Agronomy Communications, (515) 294-1890.

Teachers, extension specialists and the public are being offered a new set of Bt curriculum materials prepared by Iowa State University's Office of Biotechnology and published by ISU Extension. Available in CD or printed form, "Bacillus thuringiensis: Sharing Its Natural Talent with Crops" helps youth and adults explore the science behind Bt crops; learn more about the crops that incorporate Bt; examine the agricultural production issues for Bt crops; and develop a framework for evaluating ethical, social and legal questions associated with controversial technologies and issues. Genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been genetically engineered into crops to provide insect resistance. Different proteins produced by Bt genes target specific insect pests, such as European corn borers in corn and bollworms in cotton. For price information or to download a free electronic copy, visit or call (515) 294-9818. Contact Walter Fehr, Biotechnology, (515) 294-9818; or Glenda Webber, Biotechnology Communications, (515) 294-4749.

In 2000, approximately 17 million households, or 6.2 percent of the total U.S. population and 50 percent of households with poverty-level incomes, participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program. Stephen Sapp, Iowa State University sociologist, studied USDA data on the food habits of parents and children from all income levels between 1994 and 1996. Sapp found that the food stamp program gives low-income families monetary assistance and assures dietary quality equivalent to higher-income families. The problem, Sapp said, is that dietary quality in all families needs to be improved. The USDA surveys indicate that families at all income levels understand the need for good nutrition but lack the knowledge to implement it. Contact Sapp, (515) 294-1403; or Barb McManus, Agriculture Communications, (515) 294-0707


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