The Homeland Security Department "does not have evidence" that foot-and-mouth disease research can be conducted on the U.S. mainland without significant risk of an animal epidemic, Congress' Government Accountability Office said.
Officials were expected to square off Thursday at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. The administration is not backing down on its view that modern laboratories have the highest security to prevent an escape of the virus.
The one certainty in the debate that has divided the commercial livestock industry: making the wrong choice could bring on an economic catastrophe.
While the disease does not sicken humans, an outbreak on the U.S. mainland - avoided since 1929 - could lead to slaughter of millions of animals, a halt in U.S. livestock movements, a ban on exports and severe losses in the production of meat and milk.
To avoid an epidemic, foot-and-mouth research has been confined since 1955 to the 840-acre Plum Island, New York, off the northeastern tip of Long Island. The facility there is outmoded and will be replaced by a National Bio-and-Agro-Defense Facility that also will study diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans.
There are five finalist mainland sites: Athens, Georgia; Flora, Mississippi; Manhattan, Kansas; Butner, North Carolina; and San Antonio.
Plum Island also is a finalist, although Homeland Security officials are spending considerable time and money holding forums at the mainland locations to convince residents the new lab would be safe.
"We found that DHS has not conducted or commissioned any study to determine whether FMD (foot-and-mouth disease) work can be done safely on the U.S. mainland," according to testimony prepared for the committee by Nancy Kingsbury, the GAO's managing director for applied research and methods.
Jay Cohen, an undersecretary of Homeland Security, said in his prepared testimony: "While there is always a risk of human error ... the redundancies built into modern research laboratory designs and the latest biosecurity and containment systems ... effectively minimizes these risks."
Department spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said risk assessments are being conducted at each proposed site to evaluate impacts of hypothetical foot-and-mouth disease releases. The public will be asked to comment on the findings.
The administration based its decision of safe mainland research on a 2002 Agriculture Department study on whether it was technically feasible to do the work onshore.
Kingsbury said there is a major distinction between what is technically feasible and "what is possible, given the potential for human error."
"We found that the study was selective in what it considered," she said. "It did not assess the history of releases of FMD virus or other dangerous pathogens, either in the United States or elsewhere."