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U.S. Ag secretary pledges vigilance

February 2, 2002 The Columbus Dispatch by Mark Niquette
Threats to the U.S. food supply are a concern in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The nation's top agriculture official said yesterday she is most worried about a contagious animal disease such as foot-and- mouth.

Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said during a visit to Columbus that farmers and agriculture officials have been on alert for foot- and-mouth disease for a year. But with increased concerns about domestic security since Sept. 11, risks remain for the release of a fast-spreading disease among cattle and other animals.

"We've taken the right kind of steps to protect our country," said Veneman, who spoke to Ohio State University agriculture students and later met with several Ohio farmers. "But when I look at all the scenarios, that remains one of my biggest areas of concern . . . because of the economic devastation it could cause."

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe last year led to the slaughter of 631,000 animals, and damages in Great Britain alone exceeded $365 million.

Federal and state agriculture departments have been working with farmers and others since then to prevent an outbreak in the United States, where the disease was eradicated 70 years ago.

But Veneman said more can be done, and the Bush administration will propose spending an additional $131 million next year to protect the nation's food supply from a terrorist attack or accident.

Bush's 2003 budget, to be announced Monday, will call for $49 million more to monitor animal health as well as additional spending for food-inspection programs and research.

In other matters, Veneman said she couldn't predict when Congress might pass a new farm bill but said money for 2002 crop programs would be available.

Farmers have been worried that subsidies and other aid in the farm bill would not be available for this year's crops. But existing subsidies don't expire until October, and a supplemental-assistance provision will be made if the new bill isn't passed soon, Veneman said.

"I believe that, one way or another, our farmers will be taken care of for the 2002 crops," she said.

Veneman also said her department is working on last week's request from Gov. Bob Taft to reinstate funding for a program that provides poor families with fruits and vegetables.

The state missed a deadline last year to apply for the funding because it was trying to reduce a $1.5 billion budget deficit and wasn't certain it had money available to pay the state's share for the program.

But Taft said, since then, Ohio has identified funds from the national tobacco settlement. He asked Veneman in a letter for the maximum $329,000 to give $18 vouchers to women to spend at farmer's markets.

"I don't know they will get the full amount that they requested, but we're working on it," she said.

Veneman announced $12.2 million in federal funds for rural development in Ohio, including a $12 million loan guarantee to build 166 miles of power lines in 11 northwest Ohio counties.

While she is in Ohio, Veneman also will speak at other schools and encourage mentoring of 4-H and Future Farmers of America students.

The effort is a response to a call in President Bush's State of the Union address this week for more public service and volunteerism, she said.

mniquette@dispatch.com


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