Sparse U.S. government funding has left federal animal-health programs outdated, understaffed and ill-prepared for a potential bioterrorism attack on U.S. farm livestock, according to a new study by industry and government officials.

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

"Infrastructure inadequacies, especially in terms of staffing and facilities, are now so deep that the (USDA) system can’t appropriately respond to a severe animal health crisis," the study says.

U.S. cattle, hog, poultry and other livestock are a $100 billion industry but the federal government will spend an only $70 million this year on animal health monitoring programs, according to the group. A bioterrorism attack using foreign animal diseases could be easily introduced to U.S. livestock pastures and feedlots.

The report calls for an overhaul of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is a key agency responsible for safeguarding the nation's 1 billion chickens, 106 million cattle and 59 million hogs.

About 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. USDA veterinarians diagnose potential outbreaks of animal diseases and would play a key role in responding to a possible biological attack on the United States.

NASDA contends congress must swiftly provide funds to recruit more experienced staff, expand animal research and improve USDA laboratories to shorten the response time.

The report didn’t call for a specific boost in funding for the USDA. But experts say achieving the recommendations could require hundreds of millions of dollars in government money. For example, industry sources estimate it would cost more than $400 million just to upgrade the National Animal Disease Center in Ames, Iowa – the main USDA research facility on livestock and poultry diseases.

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.

The report also urges USDA to create a sophisticated surveillance system patterned after that used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to swiftly collect and share information about disease outbreaks. Such a system also would need to involve state agencies, veterinarians, universities and farm groups.

Plus, USDA needs more enforcement authority. That should include tougher civil penalties for illegally importing animals or products, and subpoena power.

Critics claim USDA hasn’t paid enough attention to biosafety programs in recent years and funding has suffered. But Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and other USDA officials say that the department is well prepared for any potential bioterrorism attack.

They point to USDA's success in keeping foot-and-mouth disease and deadly mad cow disease from entering the United States. However, in testimony before Congress last week, USDA Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley acknowledged some improvements were needed at laboratories in Ames as well as Plum Island, New York, and Athens, Georgia.

Reuters