The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is considering the relocation of a research facility that holds the world's most contagious livestock diseases from an island to the heartland of the United States.
The move is striking panic in the hearts of farmers who fear a nightmare epidemic. The Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, John Dingell (D-MI) called the proposal, "utterly baffling."
"Containing a major outbreak would be a Herculean if not impossible task," said Leroy Watson, Legislative Director for the National Grange that represents 300,000 farmers and ranchers. Watson told Congress the disease "is twenty times more infectious than smallpox."
An outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain last summer was traced to a nearby research facility. A 2001 British outbreak led to the slaughter of at least 6 million animals.
The investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told Congress that DHS has "neither conducted nor commissioned any study to determine whether work on foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) can be done safely on the U.S. mainland."
The Plum Island Animal Disease Center off the coast of Long Island, was run by the US Department of Agriculture but was turned over to DHS in 2003. This upset some farmers who say DHS lacks the expertise to run an animal disease center regardless of location.
Almost 100% of all animals who come into contact with the incurable foot and mouth disease contract the illness which can spread quickly infecting millions of animals.
DHS says the Plum Island facility is aging and needs updating. Officials note that a centralized location would aid in research. The new structure, estimated to cost over $400 million, has not yet been built but DHS wants to decide where to put the new facility by the fall.
By Laura Strickler