Border station tests insect-ID tech

A California border inspection station has successfully tested digital imaging technology to identify insects found on trucks bringing agricultural products into the state. The test could lead to other border stations using similar equipment in two years.

In the 30-day pilot program that ended in February, high-tech equipment transmitted images of insects from the Blythe Station, located near the state's border with Arizona, to scientists who identified the creatures and determined whether they are harmless or destructive, said Larry Cooper, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture (www.cdfa.ca.gov).

"When a truck comes in and we find insects on that truck and we're not sure what they are or suspect they could be economically damaging insects, we test them," he said.

"We take a sample of that insect, put it under a microscope, and digitally send that picture directly to our scientists at our state laboratory in Sacramento," he continued. "They immediately can identify and tell the border station within an hour if that pest is economically damaging and what it is."

He said the identification procedure normally holds up shipments for days because the insect itself would have to be sent to Sacramento for evaluation. Cooper said if the insects are found to be harmless, then the trucks can proceed to their destination. But if the pests are found to be economically damaging, then the drivers can either return to the place of origin or fumigate the trucks.

California has 16 border stations, and Blythe is the busiest, Cooper said. At that station, about 20 truckloads a month are tested and proceed, while another 20 return to their state of origin rather than wait for testing and about eight to 10 fumigate their loads rather than wait for the results.

Cooper said the equipment used in the pilot program costs about $23,000 and consists of a set of microscopic Nikon Inc. lenses provided by Burlingame, Calif.-based Technical Instrument San Francisco; a Diagnostic Instruments Inc. Spot RT color zoom camera; and a Compaq Computer Corp. system. Depending on the budget, the department hopes to equip each station within the next two years.

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