WASHINGTON (B)--U.S. Department of Agriculture officials announced Jan. 18 that it is seeking an additional $340 million for fiscal 2001 to upgrade the two major USDA animal health labs in case a major animal disease outbreak put U.S. "food security and food safety" at risk.

"The threats are real," said Craig Reed, administrator of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). "There are about a dozen or so diseases we need to be on guard for. All industries have a problem, and we must be on guard or they will be devastated."

Speaking to reporters and congressional staff just a few weeks before the start of the congressional session, Reed said a major Nebraska outbreak of hog cholera, or swine flu, could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion in the first month alone.

The request, which will be part of the Clinton administration's fiscal 2001 budget proposal, is asking for $300 million to improve the APHIS research lab in Ames, IA, so that it can keep infected animals effectively isolated from the environment. USDA is also seeking $40 million to upgrade the Plum Island, NY, lab in order to isolate infectious animal diseases from the environment, human populations and even the researchers themselves as they conduct their studies. Clinton is scheduled to announce his budget proposal for fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1, on Feb. 7.

Animal diseases do not just infect animals, said APHIS official Alfonso Torres. The damage to public confidence in the food system could be tremendous, and some diseases--such as avian flu--can jump from livestock to humans, causing a major public health problem as well.

Craig said the two USDA research labs form the base of an emergency response system including both the U.S. and an as yet unfinished "command center" currently under construction in Riverdale, MD, which would coordinate the response of animal health regulators throughout the NAFTA region

Beth Lautner, vice president for science and technology for the National Pork Producers Council, noted the situation at the Ames lab--where some anthrax and bovine spongiform encephalopathy, BSE or Mad Cow Disease, research is done in rented space inside local mini-malls.

Lautner said that state animal health authorities had responded in a survey to the Animal Agriculture Coalition, an umbrella group of various animal-related industry organizations. One-third of the states said they had no plans to deal with an outbreak of animal disease, half said they had no plans to communicate with industry or federal authorities, and almost half of the states said they had not done any training.

In the event of a major crisis, Craig said that U.S. official might have access to an advanced animal disease research facility in Winnipeg, Canada, "but the U.S. would have to go on a waiting list if it was a U.S. problem."

Among the diseases that pose a threat to the U.S. livestock "system," according to Craig, are swine flu, avian influenza, and the newly discovered Nipah virus, which caused several hundred human and considerably more animal deaths last year in Malaysia.

Even the eradication of an animal disease from the U.S. does not finally solve the problem, Lautner said. Foot-and-mouth disease was eradicated in both Taiwan and the U.S. in 1929, but the disease re-emerged on the island-state several years ago and nearly destroyed Taiwan's hog industry.

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