- ALBANY (AP) -- Intelligence officials believe Saddam Hussein would like
to include aflatoxin, a deadly cancer-causing substance that grows in Georgia
peanut fields, in his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
- For this reason, U.N. weapons inspectors
returning to Iraq this week have their eyes peeled for evidence of the
poison, which is produced naturally in peanuts, cotton, corn and a few
- Intelligence officials say aflatoxin,
which costs the peanut industry $10 million a year, is one of the agents
Saddam's military could produce quickly and secretly for weapons of mass
destruction. Some of the others are anthrax, botullinum toxin, nerve gas
and mustard gas.
- The peanut industry has designated aflatoxin
as its No. 1 food quality issue and wants to be able to guarantee aflatoxin-free
peanuts by the year 2000.
- Produced by a mold that grows on peanuts,
corn and cotton seeds, aflatoxin has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory
animals and is considered carcinogenic to humans.
- Peanuts that have aspergillus, the mold
that produces the toxin, can't be sold for human consumption. Instead,
they are sold cheap to make peanut oil or to provide seeds for future crops.
- Experts say aflatoxin, or the mere presence
of the aspergillus mold, cost the peanut industry about $10 million a year
from 1993 through 1996.
- Ron Wood, an U.S. Agriculture Department
supervisor in Albany, said 3 to 4 percent of Georgia's crop gets contaminated
with the mold in ``bad years,'' when the growing season has long periods
of hot, dry weather.
- Farmers were plagued by a drought last
summer, but surprisingly only .023 percent of the crop has received the
aflatoxin risk designation, known as ``Segregation Three.''
- Experts believe rain in September, along
with new inspection procedures, minimized problems. For the first time
ever, growers who failed their initial inspection were allowed to clean
up their peanuts and have them reinspected.
- Aflatoxin is one of several naturally
occurring toxins that have potential as biological weapons. Others include
the bacteria that cause anthrax and botulism.
- The peanut industry has been funding
aflatoxin research for years.
- ``It hurts the farmer, the sheller, the
processor, the exporter _ everybody,'' said Mitch Head, executive director
of the Atlanta-based Peanut Advisory Board, which promotes peanuts from
Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
- ``Even if it's only a couple of percentage
points ... it's still millions of dollars.''
- The research includes efforts to develop
aflatoxin-resistant peanut plants and studies of growing techniques, such
as the timing of irrigation, that could minimize problems.
- Researchers at the USDA's Peanut Research
Laboratory in Dawson have found a way to fight aflatoxin with ``good molds''
that compete with the ``bad molds.''
- ``These are identical to the wild type,
except they don't make any toxin,'' said Dick Cole, director of the laboratory.
``They displace the toxigenic fungus.''
- Fields treated with the good mold had
90 percent less aflatoxin than untreated fields, Cole said. He believes
farmers will be able to use this `biocompetitive'' procedure for about
$20 per acre.
- The new technique should also reduce
aflatoxin in corn and cotton seeds, he said. Other crops that are vulnerable
to aflatoxin include pistachios and almonds.
- The Food and Drug Administration requires
that aflatoxin levels in peanuts be lower than 20 parts per billion, the
equivalent of a drop of water in a 21,700-gallon swimming pool. Health
officials say the toxin poses no problem to humans because contaminated
crops are kept out of the food chain.
- That is little consolation to the peanut
industry, which won't be satisfied until the problem is eliminated or at
least reduced significantly.
- ``It's still the No. 1 priority,'' Head
said. ``Europe has raised its standards. If we're going to be competing
against China and Argentina, we have to get the aflatoxin level down to
a negligible level.''