Peanut Carcinogens Cost Farmers
$10 Million Year -
Bioweapon Potential
From Access Atlanta
By Elliott Minor
Associated Press
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 other crops.
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.''