Lax Security at USDA Labs Putting Farms at Risk

April 30, 2002 Reuters by Randy Fabi
AMES, Iowa (Reuters) - Lax security and dilapidated federal laboratories that test animals for deadly diseases including anthrax and "mad cow" disease are putting the livestock industry at risk, US scientists and government officials said.

The US Agriculture Department (news - web sites)'s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames is responsible for quickly identifying an economically devastating outbreak of disease in cattle, pigs, chicken and other animals.

However, poor ventilation, rodent infestation and outdated buildings hamper the ability of USDA scientists to do their jobs, industry officials said.

"It is embarrassing when people from other countries come and visit our facilities," Randall Levings, head of the USDA laboratories, told Reuters at an animal disease conference. "One of the nicer comments they have said was that it was 'appalling."'

Last year, the National Association of State Agriculture Departments reported after an 11-month review that many USDA facilities had problems that were "so deep that the system cannot appropriately respond to a severe animal health crisis."

In response, the USDA devised a 10-year plan to modernize all its laboratories. So far, Congress has appropriated $113 million of the $450 million needed for the renovations.

USDA officials said they expect the modernization plan to be completed by 2006. "Every effort is being made to move as rapidly as possible," said Alisa Harrison, USDA spokeswoman.

The department also maintains it is prepared to handle any major outbreak of an animal disease that could pose a threat to US agriculture.

During the anthrax scare last year, Iowa's National Guard was called up to boost security at the USDA laboratories near Iowa State University in Ames. The facilities house viruses and bacteria that can be harmful to the farm industry and humans.

However, 6 months later the National Guard was no longer guarding the labs. At some facilities, security appeared nonexistent.

"I honestly don't know how we have been successful in escaping a major outbreak like in Europe," said one US meat industry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Our labs are a joke."

One of the USDA laboratories in Ames is responsible for testing animals for mad cow disease and identifying Salmonella and E. coli bacteria (news - web sites).

Working within a confined space of a commercial strip mall next to a real estate office and hardware store, scientists at the laboratory test thousands of cattle brains each year for mad cow disease. The United States has never found a case of this rare, degenerative, brain disorder that has devastated Europe.

The facility also does not have an armed guard, a fence or any visible security protecting it.

Levings said USDA scientists must use an electronic access card to enter the building.

USDA officials gave reporters a tour of the laboratory last week. "It's incredible they have to do their work in a strip mall," said Richard Ross, a veterinarian at Iowa State University. "Someone could break in. They need to have better security."

Last year, the US Animal Health Association said the building had significant deficiencies including aleaky roof, mice, and ground water seepage.

Despite the out-of-date facilities, Levings said the USDA could handle a major animal disease outbreak with the help of regional and state laboratories, which are trained and certified by the USDA.

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