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Ross: Food industry still open to attacks

Associated Press

AMES, Iowa -- Agriculture and food industries in the United States are vulnerable to an outbreak of foreign animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth, an expert says.

Richard Ross, an Iowa State University veterinarian said the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs more money to deal with several factors, including the fact that the industry is growing rapidly.

Ross served on a panel that assessed the Agriculture Department's preparedness for an animal disease outbreak in livestock.

He said several diseases could easily be brought into the country on the shoes of tourists, by passengers carrying food or through infected herds of pigs and cattle that enter and exit the country. The United States has more than 400 land, sea and air ports of entry.

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Ross spoke at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education Media Fellowship last week in Ames. He was a member of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, a nonprofit group made up of agriculture industry officials and university researchers. It issued recommendations in October to improve the nation's system for inspecting and monitoring livestock and food for diseases.

Since Sept. 11 the nation has carefully examined potential terrorists targets, but the government has not focused as much on protecting food production and livestock trade.

The panel of experts said that the Agriculture Department Animal Plant Health Inspection Service needs more funding because it can't keep up with the growing industry and increased world trade.

"Surveillance techniques are failing to keep up with new and more subtle avoidance," the panel wrote in its report.

Many countries, including Great Britain, have had outbreaks of contagious animal diseases including "Mad Cow'' disease and foot-and-mouth. Outbreaks are a concern because some of the diseases can infect humans. The diseases also can devastate the farming industry.

The United States has not had to deal with an outbreak of such a disease.

"We're darn lucky," Ross said.

The panel estimated in October that the livestock industry alone is worth $100 billion, but the federal government has spent $70 million in monitoring pork where hundreds of animals and food products are transported across U.S. borders.

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"Simply put, resources do not meet the growing risk," the group said.

Though economists may be able to estimate how much an outbreak could cost farmers, trade groups and other businesses, Iowa State Economist Helen Jensen said disease outbreaks can affect several aspects of the economy including tourism, as was the case with the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Great Britain last year.

The panel did not recommend a level of funding that the Agriculture Department should spend on preventing disease outbreaks, but officials hope to have a specific figure soon.

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