WASHINGTON (DTN)--The U.S. government might expand a program designed to compensate wheat farmers whose crops have been tainted by an outbreak of Karnal bunt wheat fungus, federal agriculture officials said Oct. 31.

Helene Wright, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's national Karnal bunt coordinator, said information she and other government officials were gathering at a two-day national industry meeting in Oklahoma City, OK, would help shape any changes to the existing compensation plan, Reuters reports. She did not elaborate.

Karnal bunt is caused by the smug fungus Tilletia indica and is spread by spores, mainly through the movement of infected or contaminated seed.

Flour made from heavily infected wheat carries an unpleasant odor and taste, jeopardizing its marketability.

The wheat can be fed to cattle, under strict conditions, but cannot be used for human consumption, leaving wheat growers in the affected areas largely unable to sell their wheat.

Wheat fields in several Texas counties as well as fields in California and Arizona have been quarantined, and growers have had their product prohibited from entering normal marketing channels because of the outbreak.

Wheat growers and other industry players in Oklahoma and Kansas, two of the largest wheat-growing areas in the United States, fear that too little is being done to protect them from possible outbreaks, even though they have not yet been hit by the fungus.

"It's not just producers, it's rural America they could ruin, if they don't stop it," said Lew Meibergen, with Johnston Enterprises grain elevators in Enid, OK.

Earlier this year, the USDA set compensation for Karnal bunt losses at 60 cents per bushel for positive-testing wheat grown in regulated areas. Compensation is not to exceed $1.80 per bushel for positive-testing wheat grown in an area that became regulated for Karnal bunt after the 1999/2000 crop was planted. This includes all newly regulated areas in Texas, USDA said.

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