Quality assurance through world-class research stands the test of time

The Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory has been assessing and improving the quality of Canadian crops for more than nine decades

The bright blue paint on the Allis Chalmers roll stands looks conspicuously out of place among the gleaming modern metal in the pilot-scale flour mill on the 16th floor of the CGC Grain Research Lab.

Miller Dave Turnock thinks they are about 80 years old and have also seen duty at the lab’s former location in the Grain Exchange Building. They may even have been housed in the very first Grain Research Lab, located in a postal station on Main Street and Magnus Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End.

The CGC Grain Research Lab is that kind of place — where new research and technologies are building upon past efforts in order to provide quality assurance for Canada’s evolving grain industry.

The GRL’s Early Days

When the Board of Grain Commissioners (now the CGC) was formally established in 1912, a beefed-up inspection and grading system was introduced. The board-wanted a research lab to oversee moisture testing, to test wheat quality through milling and bread baking activities, and to test flax for oil content.

By June 1914, the Grain Research Lab was up and running with a staff of five.

F.J. Birchard, the first director (chief chemist), was a crusty and determined individual who began by setting acceptable levels for moisture in grain, thus helping producers get more reasonable prices for damp grain.

He also expressed concerns about the grading system, and questioned whether grade prices actually reflected the value of the grain.

This was good news for farmers — but not so for the rest of the industry. Birchard’s research was caught up in ongoing disputes between the grain trade and producers, with the result that the federal government shut the GRL down in 1923.

A stubborn Birchard continued to work in the empty lab, until — as a result of lobbying from farmer groups and members of Parliament — the GRL reopened. It coincided closely with the move to the Grain Exchange Building in May of 1927, where the lab joined the CGC’s Winnipeg offices.

Once back in business, Birchard undertook a number of programs that would help establish the quality of Canadian wheat and define the GRL:

  •  extensive protein testing of red spring wheat, beginning in 1927;
  •  quality testing of samples from all grains and oilseeds moving to market;
  •  monitoring of moisture tests done by inspectors
  •  limited quality testing of new varieties;
  •  participation in grain-drying research with three Prairie universities.

Birchard also began sending the results of the GRL’s quality testing program to Canadian and foreign millers, and pushed for enhanced use of these publications in a variety of languages. This marketing tool is still a cornerstone of the CGC quality assurance program today.

Birchard’s final contribution was a trip in 1932 to Italy, in order to demonstrate the lab’s quality assurance work, promote the use of Canadian wheat, and gather market intelligence.

As the 1930s unfolded, the GRL continued to gain prominence under the leadership of its new director, W. E. Geddes. It acquired the Durum Research Lab and its durum milling and pasta-testing equipment from the University of Manitoba — including a spectrophotometer for studying pasta colour.

It began work, in conjunction with the Associate Committee on Grain Research, to test promising new varieties of wheat and barley. It also began working with other national and international organizations to research rust resistance and test new Canadian rust-resistance varieties, among other projects.

The GRL played an important role in helping to establish the new wheat variety Thatcher in the marketplace.

The War Years and Beyond

During World War ll, the lab continued its protein survey, moisture measurement and quality testing functions, although due to limited resources and staff, little new research could be undertaken.

It was, however, able to study the effects of long-term storage on grain sitting in terminals and bins due to a lack of customers. An entomologist was added to the team, insecticides were used, and for the first time, the GRL began testing for chemical residues.

In 1942, the GRL acquired the Malting Barley Lab from the National Research Council.

After the war, with J. A. Anderson at the helm, staffing was brought back to its full contingent and research flourished once again. Work was done on dough qualities, reactions that cause durum colour to fade during processing, and compounds that increase the viscosity of barley.

Work continued also on grain- drying research, and in 1951, when the harvest was wet and large numbers of farmers dried their grain for the first time, the GRL tested all farm-dried grain for milling and baking qualities. It also provided a free sample-testing service that helped farmers adjust their grain dryers.

In 1954, Anderson spelled out the five priorities for the lab as it moved into the second half of the 20th Century:

  •  assessing the quality of each new crop and informing domestic/foreign customers;
  •  recording the quality of all grades of grain at port providing lab services to the inspection branch;
  •  collaborating with plant breeders in the development and testing of new grain varieties;
  •  serving as the main centre for research into the quality of cereal grains.

He noted that research was most important, because ”the improvement of all other services depends upon progress in research.”

Today, almost 60 years later, these priorities still continue to define the Grain Research Lab.

Another major contribution of Anderson’s was his yearly overseas travel with the Canadian Wheat Board to promote Canadian grains and oilseeds, both to existing customers and to potential ones such as China.

G. N. Irvine, who would eventually succeed Anderson, worked with the CWB to train the grain technical officers in the Canadian Wheat Board’s newly created technical services and marketing department. When he became director in 1963, he increased the amount of time he — and other staff members — spent overseas providing technical support to the CWB.

As well, to further bolster market development, Irvine established a technical services section within the GRL to study problems or potential problems in milling and baking of Canadian wheat in foreign countries.

As the 60s moved toward the 70s, the GRL’s work in the testing of new varieties, an essential step prior to licensing, gained international respect — so much so that it collaborated with the U.S. Crop Quality Council to test the quality of American varieties.

A New Era

A move in 1973, along with the rest of the GCG head office, into a modern building near the famed corner of Portage and Main heralded a new era of research, technology, achievements, and expansions for the GRL.

Keith Tipples, who became director in 1979, was a vital part of these exciting times. His work included a pioneering study of wheat protein strength, which enabled the lab to do more meaningful evaluations of bread-baking qualities and potential new varieties.

Tipples also showed how the level of alpha-amylase enzyme found in wheat can affect quality — depending on the end products and specific baking methods used. Some markets such as Japan require sound top-grade wheat with a very low enzyme activity, whereas for other markets such as China, the moderate enzyme activity of No. 3 CWRS wheat may be perfectly satisfactory for their end uses.

In a recent interview, Tipples said that this and other research meant a different approach to looking at quality in wheat.

“We developed new areas of expertise, which allowed us to develop more sophisticated techniques of measuring quality,” he said.

With the overhaul of the grading system in the early 70s, the lab worked with inspectors to relate the physical appearance of wheat to the quality required for its end use. If a particular type of damage did not negatively affect end use, there could be more tolerance to this damage.

“In this way, we maximized the amount going into the top grade, while protecting top quality,” he said.

Another important highlight during this time were the achievements of the residue analysis section.

“This was a new, state-of-the-art lab that could provide detailed reports of toxic residues in parts per billion,” Tipples said. “It assured buyers and users that Canadian grain was free from unacceptable levels of heavy metals, pesticides and mycotoxins.”

During this era, new momentum and equipment were added to the GRL’s flour mill, so that it could replicate, on a pilot scale, milling techniques of customer countries. This enabled the evaluation of Canadian wheat in foreign pasta, noodle and bread making.

Also during the 70s, a new oilseeds section — which had been created in response to the growth in rapeseed production — had almost immediate success when it developed a rapid procedure for estimating erucic acid. This allowed for segregation of new, low erucic acid varieties.

Shortly after, Jim Daun, who worked in rapeseed and canola research at the GRL for 31 years, established specifications for glucosinolates and erucic acid — thereby helping to create the official definition of canola. He also developed a method of glucosinolate measurement; he was recently recognized by the Canola Council of Canada for his work.

The development of near-infrared technology for reliable rapid protein analysis in wheat was another world first, said Tipples. Protein segregation had been introduced along with the new grading system, and this technology revolutionized the process. (See related article.)

When Tipples retired in 1998, Bill Scowcroft led the GRL into the 21st Century.

The GRL Today

Blue Allis-Chalmers stands aside, if Birchard and some of his immediate successors were to visit the Grain Research Lab today, most of it would be unrecognizable to them.

For example, wheat and barley variety identification is no longer done on a visual basis. Both DNA identification and polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis, a technology that uses electric currents to create protein profiles for comparison purposes, are being used to monitor varieties as they move through the system, said Peter Burnett, current GRL director.

At port, it means variety segregation can take place, and cargoes can be certified for classes of wheat and varieties of barley.

“We developed the technology to do this,” Burnett said. “We are doing extensive work in DNA identification, and have become a world leader in this area.”

In 2009, the GRL used its DNA expertise to mitigate a crisis in the Canadian flax industry. The terminated GMO variety Triffid had somehow made its way into European shipments and the commodity was quickly shut out of the EU marketplace.

“We worked with industry to develop a protocol for DNA testing in a matter of weeks,” said Burnett. “The border re-opened to Canadian flax, and we can assure that all flax going to Europe is GMO free.”

Another industry-response development at the GRL is a new pulse section, created as a result of the recent increase in pulse acreage, Burnett noted. One aspect of its research, the measurement and comparison of the cooking quality of peas from different samples, has led to the invention of the Mattson cooker, which can cook individual kernels.

This invention is now being used by research labs around the world.

Also in pulse research, image analysis is being investigated as a way to provide accurate photographs as reference for lentil grading. It is anticipated that this technology will address the problem of colour fading that occurs over time in actual samples.

Image analysis is also being used to count the undesirable colour specks in noodles and pasta.

Grain-safety testing and monitoring at the GRL is more important that ever as a result of changing world standards, but now in addition to pesticide, mycotoxin and heavy metal testing, the GRL regularly tests for fallout from nuclear accidents — something that would have had early GRL researchers scratching their heads in puzzlement.

Another recent GRL achievement, said Burnett, has been its work with breeders to develop low cadmium-accumulating varieties of durum wheat in order to meet international food safety standards.

Differentiating protein in wheat is now routine work, as a result of the 20 near infrared machines in use at the GRL. In addition, this technology is now being used to differentiate chlorophyll in canola to protect oil quality.

In the area of barley research, Marta Izydorczyk and her team are using a rapid visco analyzer to predict how long malting barley will retain its ability to germinate. This in turn predicts how quickly it must be used after harvest and how long it can be stored.

These wide-ranging research activities all contribute to the GRL’s mandate, as set out in 1954, of surveying the annual harvest for quality, monitoring export shipments, and assisting in variety evaluation.

While so much has changed in the way this is done, the basic premise of providing quality assurance has remained the same. Like the blue roll stands, the Grain Research Lab has served the CGC and the Canadian grain industry solidly and consistently over the years, helping to enhance and maintain Canada’s reputation in the international grain marketplace.

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