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Ag Utilization Centers Celebrate 75 Years of Innovation

By Jan Suszkiw
October 29, 2015

Photo: 75th Anniversary logo.

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Improved methods of ensuring product quality, detecting foodborne pathogens and creating biobased fuels are among technological innovations arising from 75-years of scientific excellence at four Agricultural Research Service (ARS) regional utilization centers spread throughout the country. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) chief scientific research agency.

The centers, which celebrate their 75th anniversaries during the remainder of 2015 and start of 2016, are the: Eastern Regional Research Center (ERRC) in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania; Western Regional Research Center (WRRC) in Albany, California; National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, Illinois; and Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The centers were established circa 1940 to create new, value-added uses for surpluses of region-specific crops and their byproducts, notes Rob Griesbach, deputy assistant administrator for ARS in Beltsville, Maryland.

Today, the mission of the centers' scientists remains very much the same—albeit with an expanded list of crops, consumer expectations and marketing challenges.

Some recent advances from the four utilization centers, together with the dates of their 75th anniversary celebrations, are highlighted below.

ERRC (8/20):

  • A new mobile pyrolysis unit capable of converting two tons of agricultural biomass byproducts, such as crop residues, wood and switchgrass into bio-oil—a renewable transportation fuel and petroleum alternative.
  • An analytical method that detects six serogroups of the toxin-producing bacterium Escherichia coli O157:H7. The new method, called "latex agglutination," immobilizes antibodies onto latex particles and is now used in commercial test kits to ensure food safety.

WRRC (9/4):

  • Infrared emitter technology that rapidly peels tomatoes traveling on conveyor belts at food processing plants. Steam- or chemically based methods are now used. But tests suggest using infrared energy could save on water and could work with peaches and pears.
  • Test strip that offers same-day results on the presence of the bacterial toxin responsible for botulism in improperly processed foods and stored meats. Tests indicate the WRRC-developed strips are 100- to 1,000-fold more sensitive than similar products.

NCAUR (10/8 - 10/10):

  • Sucromalt, a low-glycemic-index syrup developed from corn, cane or beet sugars using bacterial enzymes. The sweetener digests slowly but completely in the body when consumed, helping stabilize blood sugar levels. Sucromalt has been commercialized and is being added to a variety of foods or beverages.
  • Estolides, fatty acids derived from high oleic-acid oilseed crops like canola and lesquerella that can improve the cold-weather performance and other desirable properties of biobased engine lubricants.

SRRC (3/8/2016 - 3/10/2016):

  • Biopesticides for controlling the fungus Aspergillus flavus, which produces a harmful crop contaminant called aflatoxin. The biopesticide's active ingredients are non-toxin producing Aspergillus strains that outcompete their aflatoxin-producing "cousins," helping reduce human exposure and avoiding costly losses in corn, cotton, peanuts and certain other crops around the world.
  • Technologies developed at SRRC to adapt cotton nonwoven fabric (unbleached and undyed) for disposable diapers were used by TJ Beall Company, the Seventh Generation Company, and Target stores in launching their new disposable diaper products. The Seventh Generation product—Touch of Cloth disposable diaper—was launched in 2014.

Read more about the utilization centers in the October issue of AgResearch online.