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Good news, if eating insects bugs you.

"If you ate cereal for breakfast this morning, as I did, you ate some [insect parts]," notes Barrie Kitto, a biochemist with the University of Texas at Austin. "It doesn't hurt you in the least," he adds; in fact, some diners might even consider it a protein bonus. But Kitto doesn't. Nor does the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which contacted Kitto four years ago about developing a better insect-screening test for federal grain inspectors.

USDA and the Food and Drug Administration are currently investigating the new assay. If approved as a regulatory tool, it should speed and lower the cost of federal monitoring for insect contamination, says Kitto.

Currently, inspectors look for whole insects or big fragments by spreading out grain kernels and eyeballing them. To scout out smaller fragments, they put about a half cup of flour into a beaker with acid and heat it for several hours. Then they mix this stuff with mineral oil, shake it up, filter off what floats to the top -- eight times -- and dry the resulting extracts. Technicians view the residue under a microscope and count the individual fragments.

"It takes about six months of training to become an insect-fragment counter," Kitto says. Once proficient, technicians can process six or eight tests a day. At $5 each, the new tests cost a fraction of the old ones. Moreover, Kitto notes, after just two days of practice, an individual can usually perform up to 40 of the new immunological assays daily.

Kitto describes his test as "similar in concept to a home pregnancy test." It looks for myosin, a muscle protein present in insects at all life stages, and provides a good screen for all but tiny eggs, he says. When an extraction fluid is added to grain or foods containing the protein, the mix turns green. The deeper the hue, the more protein present. Using a color meter, "you can get very quantitative readings," Kitto maintains.

Right now, regulators don't know what to do with those readings. The current federal standard allows 75 insect fragments per 50 grams of grain: Fragment size--whether it's three-quarters of a large maggot or just a fruit fly's wing tip -- is immaterial. Kitto's assay, by contrast, quantifies insect-contaminant mass. Deciding how best to correlate the two appears to be "one of the reasons that it's taking so long for [this test to win] approval as a regulatory standard," Kitto says.
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Title Annotation:federal government is developing screening-test for grain inspectors
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Oct 17, 1992
Words:404
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