The facility is significant as it could help food manufacturers capitalize on the dramatic growth of healthy food products such as the cereal bars sector, which expanded by 13.4 per cent last year.
The laboratory will be operated by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the USDA's chief scientific research agency.
"This facility will provide much-needed work space for Agricultural Research Service scientists who provide a critical link between barley growers and breeders and the malting and brewing industries," said ARS administrator Edward B. Knipling.
"The new lab will be important because it is the country's only public research facility that evaluates malting barley cultivars based on their quality and usefulness."The scientists behind the new lab intend to study the unique, health-promoting compounds found in oats, which they hope to enhance in order to make it an even more significant heart-healthy food.
Barley malt, which contains natural sugars, can be found in a wide range of foods, including breakfast cereals, beverages and bakery goods. It is the basic, fermentable ingredient in beer.
A good example of a specific oat-based growth sector is the cereal bars market. According to Mintel, US sales topped $2.2 billion in 2004, excluding sales through Wal-Mart and natural food stores. The market grew at a compound annual growth rate of 13.4 per cent between 1999 and 2004.
Products in the category include cereal/snack/breakfast bars such as Kelloggs Nutri-Grain bars or General Mills Milk n Cereal bars; intrinsic health bars like Atkins Advantage bars or Ross Labs ZonePerfect bars; and granola bars such as Quaker Oats Chewy Granola or General Mills Nature Valley bars.
The category is now one of the fastest growing food categories, one that more food makers would no doubt like to tap into.
In 2004, ARS scientists at Madison assessed more than 5,000 different malting barley breeding lines, providing data that will help breeders develop high-quality cultivars for US farmers. ARS research at Madison is also focused on finding new ways to bolster crop plants against attack from persistent and costly fungal diseases, like Fusarium head blight on barley and blast on rice.
ARS scientists in the Cereal Crops Research Unit currently share an outdated 1948 laboratory. The new facility will have more than twice the square footage of the current one, and will house about 50 employees, including seven full-time research scientists.
Estimated to cost $11.3 million, the new building is due to be finished in July 2006.