Study: USDA Can't Protect Livestock with Low Funds

November 21, 2001 Reuters by Randy Fabi

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sparse government funding has left federal animal health programs outdated and ill-prepared should a dangerous or highly contagious foreign animal disease find its way into U.S. farm livestock, according to a new study by industry and government officials.

The National Association of State Agriculture Departments (NASDA) said its 11-month analysis found federal animal health programs -- including laboratories, border inspectors and communications systems -- are in desperate need of attention and hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

``Infrastructure inadequacies, especially in terms of staffing and facilities, are now so deep that the (USDA) system cannot appropriately respond to a severe animal health crisis,'' the study said. Highlights of the 155-page study were obtained by Reuters.

NASDA distributed copies of its study to the U.S. Agriculture Department and members of the House Agriculture Committee. USDA was expected to release the report as early as Wednesday.

The USDA is responsible for safeguarding the nation's 1 billion chickens, 106 million cattle and 59 million hogs. Combined they represent billions of dollars of U.S. economic production.

Some 5,000 USDA inspectors are stationed at all U.S. ports of entry to screen visitors, trucks and equipment for illegal animals and meat products that might carry disease. Veterinarians at USDA laboratories diagnose potential outbreaks of animal diseases and would play a key role in responding to a possible biological attack on the United States.


Industry sources involved in the study said USDA would be particularly slow in allowing the U.S. livestock sector, heavily dependent on exports, to resume trade after an outbreak had occurred.

NASDA said Congress must swiftly provide sufficient funds to recruit more experienced staff, expand animal research and improve USDA laboratories in order to shorten the response time. NASDA recommended the overhaul of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is in charge of the border inspections.

The report did not call for a specific increase in funding for the USDA. But experts said the study's recommendations could require hundreds of millions of dollars in government money to achieve.

For example, industry sources estimate it would cost more than $400 million just to upgrade the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa. The laboratory is the main USDA research facility on livestock and poultry diseases.

Critics have said that the USDA has not paid enough attention to its biosafety programs in recent years and funding has suffered as a result.

USDA will spend about $827 million on APHIS programs next year, up from $544 million this year. The entire department has an annual budget of about $76 billion.


Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and other USDA officials have repeatedly said that the department is well prepared for any potential bioterrorism attack.

They point to USDA's success in keeping the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease and deadly mad cow disease from entering the United States. Both diseases spread throughout Europe and Asia earlier this year, devastating livestock industries there.

However, in testimony before Congress last week, USDA Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley acknowledged that some improvements were needed at animal health facilities in Ames as well as Plum Island, New York and Athens, Georgia.

Moseley did not elaborate on what kinds of repairs or extra security were needed at the laboratories.

USDA recently received $45 million for food security to upgrade its research facilities in New York and Iowa and improve training of local and state veterinarians.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has sponsored a bill that would give an extra $400 million to USDA for improvements. The legislation is part of a broader $3.2 billion bioterrorism defense bill sponsored by Sen. Bill Frist (news - bio - voting record), a Tennessee Republican, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (news - bio - voting record), a Massachusetts Democrat.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers are looking to give the Agriculture Secretary broader powers in protecting the farm sector.

NASDA represents state agriculture commissioners in 50 U.S. states and four territories.

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