FSU food scientist is lead scholar in trade negotiations with China

After mad cow disease was twice detected in North American livestock in 2003, The People’s Republic of China banned imports of all U.S. meat by-products. The cost to U.S. industry: 25 percent of meat-bone-meal (MBM) exports and almost $30 million a year.

A possible key to resumption of that once-burgeoning trade: FloridaState University researcher Yun-Hwa Peggy Hsieh. The FSU food science professor is recognized worldwide for her patent-pending immunochemical assays that detect banned ruminant proteins from cows, deer and sheep—the main carriers of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), known as mad cow disease—in animal feedstuffs. Undetected, adulterated MBM used in feed can infect livestock and eventually human consumers.

Enlisted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Renderers Association, Hsieh aims to help lift China’s ban by convincing Chinese officials to ditch their country’s inefficient so-called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test—it can’t differentiate between banned tissue proteins and allowed proteins like milk and blood in feeds—for her rapid and reliable one.

Hsieh’s Reveal Ruminant strip test kit and MELISA-TEK™ ruminant test kit have already been widely adopted in other international markets. Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and European Commission evaluated the Reveal Ruminant test and deemed it the most sensitive and accurate technology of its kind.

Just back from China and workshops with scientists and decision-makers, Hsieh says better tests are essential tools for fair trade. Otherwise, even if China lifts current trade restrictions, U.S. exporters would still face costly delays at Chinese ports because of false-positives that stymied MBM shipments well before the 2003 ban.

 "China’s bureaucracy has very little to do with pure science," said Hsieh. "Changing their current policy on testing imported animal meal products requires aggressive strategies, including education and politics."

In June, Hsieh made immunoassay presentations to the Ministry of Agriculture and General Administration of Quality, Inspection and Quarantine in Beijing and the national BSE testing labs in Qindow. She has been invited to return in September for another national training workshop.

FSU College of Human Sciences Dean Penny Ralston declares Hsieh a major boon to the already nationally recognized department of nutrition, food and exercise science.

"It is faculty of this caliber who helped lift us into the top-10 rankings of human sciences programs nationwide," said Ralston of the distinguished alumna, who earned her doctorate in food science from FSU in 1987 and returned as a professor in 2003 after a decade at Auburn University. "Not only is Dr. Hsieh a remarkable scholar, teacher and researcher, she also plays a vital role in international trade relations."

That role began in 2002. Chinese officials then were concerned primarily with preventing the introduction of Scrapie disease—like BSE a member of the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) family but spread exclusively through infected ovine (sheep) by-products. They agreed to consider Hsieh’s Rapid Reveal test for BSE adulteration if she developed a new assay specifically for detection of ovine material. That research continues in Hsieh’s laboratory.

Meanwhile, another workshop paid off. In 2004, Hsieh was invited to give a special presentation at the USDA-China BSE Summit in Washington, D.C. to reassure Chinese officials that the U.S. had an effective ruminant test to ensure animal feed safety.

Soon afterwards, China announced the lifting of bans, though restrictions on ruminant animal materials in MBM feeds remain.

Since then, detection of contamination from ruminant protein in non-ruminant exports has become critically important. Progress toward adoption of optimal testing methods that allow free-flowing non-ruminant MBM trade has been positive, but slow. For now, China still employs the problem-plagued PCR test. Still, changing attitudes offer hope even to beleaguered U.S. beef exporters, according to Hsieh.

"During my last trip to China, workshop participants were very enthusiastic and showed a great desire to learn. Basically, they all agreed that our immunoassay was indeed an ideal means to testing large numbers of samples."

Hsieh holds eight patented or patent-pending technologies and has been an invited speaker at more than 50 national and international conferences.