WASHINGTON (DTN)--Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-IA, told Director of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman July 17 he fears there are "gaping holes" in the Bush Administration's homeland security proposal to handle border animal and plant safety by transferring 3,200 security guards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to the proposed Department of Homeland Security .

Harkin pointed out to Ridge that, while APHIS inspects plants and animals coming into the country and is on guard against plant and animal diseases coming into the country, its border security guards do not inspect fresh food imports or processed food shipments. Noting that the Bush Administration does not plan to transfer either agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, which inspects meat and poultry, or the Food and Drug Administration, which inspects most other foods, Harkin said "terrorists might want to affect food safety" and asked Ridge who would be in charge of determining who had tainted the food. Ridge said, in the event of an intentional poisoning of food for human consumption, Homeland Security would be the "coordinator" in charge of trying to find out who tainted the food.

Harkin noted that the Administration's plan contemplates the USDA borrowing back 1,500 to 1,600 employees from Homeland Security to deal with problems, such as domestic outbreaks of disease, such as citrus canker or the medfly, in California, and told Veneman he is worried that the borders could be left unguarded. Veneman and Ridge promised to address Harkin's fears.

Alfonso Torres, a Cornell University dean who was formerly director of the USDA Plum Island Animal Disease Center, in the Atlantic Ocean off New York state, which the Bush Administration proposes to transfer to Homeland Security, testified that Plum Island is part of a "network" of USDA research facilities and should be left under USDA control, just as human health labs are being left under HHS's Centers for Disease Control. Torres noted that many of the same diseases that are studied at Plum Island also are studied at the laboratory, in Ames, IA, but that the Administration has not proposed changing control of the Ames facility. (Live animals with certain diseases are studied at Plum Island, but not brought onto the mainland of the United States, which allows the U.S. government to claim, for example, that the United States is free of foot and mouth disease).

Torres also pointed out, in an interview with DTN, that there have been past proposals to turn Plum Island into a center for human bioterrorism research and that he would oppose any attempts to turn it into a classified facility.

"Plum Island always has worked as an open academic setting," he said.

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