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Researchers honored in China for food safety work

Kansas State University's Bhadriraju "Subi" Subramanyam has a mission. He wants to make flour mills and food processing plants relatively insect-free, but in the most environmentally-friendly and cost-effective ways possible.

As part of his challenge, every nook and cranny in every piece of equipment and corner of a facility represent places where insects can hide and breed. Adding to the situation, mills and plants often run seven days a week, so have little to no time to close, clean and treat for pests.

For what he's already done in protecting grain and grain products, Subramanyam--along with colleagues Tom Phillips and James Throne--has been named an adjunct professor of Southwest University in Chongqing, China. The arrangement lasts until 2013 and paves the way for collaborative research, faculty visits and student opportunities for both universities, he said.

The three were honored last fall in ceremonies on Southwest University's campus, where the Kansans also gave presentations and met with faculty and students.

Subramanyam is a professor in K-State's Department of Grain Sciences and Industry, as well as a researcher with K-State Research and Extension. Phillips is the head of K-State's Department of Entomology. Throne is the biological research unit leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grain Marketing and Production Research Center, based in Manhattan, Kan.

Subramanyam has had a practical reason for concentrating on the storage and processing of grain-based foods: "It's more difficult to control insects on the finished product than on the raw product side."

Oftentimes, however, today's mills and plants only perform insect-related cleaning, management and intervention tasks when their facility shuts down anyway, usually for holidays.

"Unfortunately, the best time for treatment may not coincide with holidays," Subramanyam said.

He encourages managers to monitor insect populations year-round, using traps or checking product samples or tailings. That way, managers can determine when pest populations are on the rise and when a treatment would be most effective.

Much of Subramanyam's research focus has been on using high temperatures to control insects. He has worked with several U.S. heat-treatment service providers and food companies to make the technology practical and cost-effective. In 2004, he received the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for his heat treatment research and education activities.

In comparing heat with chemical controls, Subramanyam said, "Heat fits into the trend toward 'green' technology. I'm not saying that one is better than the other, but you need different tools."

Better equipment and facilities design can be other tools used to keep insects under control.

Heat treatment alone can kill all life stages of insects, Subramanyam said. But, not every plant has the capability to heat the whole facility to the temperatures needed for effective insect control (122 to 140 degrees F. for five to six hours). In some cases, companies may need supplemental heaters. In others, portions of a plant may not be able to withstand high temperatures.

"Yet, to be effective, heat treatment should be in all areas of the facility," he said, noting that the decision on whether heat is a viable option for any given plant requires careful assessment.

Another promising treatment, Subramanyam said, is a product called Spinosad. Developed by Dow AgroSciences, Spinosad is an environmentally-friendly insecticide derived from the fermentation products of a naturally-occurring soil bacterium. The product has been registered since 1997 for crop use under the Environmental Protection Agency's reduced-risk pesticide program.

Since then, Subramanyam and his research group have been among the many U.S. scientists studying Spinosad and its usefulness in controlling stored-grain insects. In extensive tests, the K-State group found the product to be safe and effective for up to two years, applied to grain at 1 part per million.

In 2005, Spinosad received EPA registration for use on grain at 1 part per million. The release of commercial formulations in the United States, however, is still pending Japan's approval of the formulation.

Japan is a key trading partner with the United States, Subramanyam explained. Its acceptance will be necessary before the U.S. grain and grain-processing industry is able to use Spinosad on a large scale--although "there's no product out there that you apply that works as well."

K-State has received more than $7 million in research awards since 2000 to study post-harvest problems and find viable, environmentally-friendly solutions, he said. But the researcher has other concerns, as well.

"We don't have a new crop of people coming in behind us to study stored-product entomology. It has become difficult to recruit students into this field," Subramanyam said. "We are a dying breed, but the need hasn't changed. People want safe food. In fact, they're more aware and concerned about their food--how it's grown, preserved, processed and transported--than they used to be."

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