Some in the livestock industry worry about disease lab's Kansas location

Published 15 October 2009

Two national cattlemen’s organizations say moving the study of dangerous pathogens to the mainland would be unwise because a tornado or other mishap could allow diseases to escape into the surrounding animal population; supporters say facility presents no risk to agriculture

Critics say an accident at a planned Kansas facility that will research pathogens in animals could devastate the livestock industry nationwide, including in the West. Some farm groups — but not all — have fears about the construction of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility at Kansas State University, which would study foot-and-mouth disease and other ailments.

The DHS facility would replace an aging research center on Plum Island, New York, an island off the northern tip of Long Island.

Tim Hearden writes that two national cattlemen’s organizations say moving the study of dangerous pathogens to the mainland would be unwise because a tornado or other mishap could allow diseases to escape into the surrounding animal population. “The most severe ramification would be the loss of the export market for beef and hogs,” said Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.

An outbreak could also affect trucking of cattle within the United States, which could cause problems for Western cattle going to feedlots in the Midwest, said Jess Peterson, the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association’s executive vice president. “This has been a national issue,” Peterson said. “Whenever I travel the nation, I talk to people who are concerned about it.”

Hearden notes that the groups’ concerns are not shared by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association or the American Farm Bureau Federation, both of which support the new facility. Elizabeth Parker, the NCBA’s chief veterinarian, compares the new facility to human-disease labs such as those at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, which have not had any mishaps. “Of course you need to assure that every precaution is taken,” Parker said. “There needs to be multiple layers of biosecurity … Technologies with buildings of this type have improved dramatically over the last 50 years.”

The critics, however, have seized on a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) report that asserts an animal-disease research facility could pose more risk than human-based disease research. The report suggests humans could come in contact with infected animals and carry diseases off site.

Further, the GAO asserts DHS “did not incorporate worst-case outbreak scenarios,” including the effectiveness of a containment zone “to control the effects of a national export ban on the domestic livestock industry.”

A conference committee this week approved funding for facility-related research at Kansas State (8 October 2009 HSNW). The government recently hired a construction manager for the research lab, which will aim to protect the food supply and agriculture economy from terrorism as well as deadly disease outbreaks.

The Manhattan, Kansas, site was chosen by a panel of scientists and experts from DHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The more than three-year search considered 29 potential sites, including 18 finalists in 11 states.

Groundbreaking is set to take place next year, and the facility could be operating by 2015.

In terms of biosecurity, Tom Thornton, president and chief executive officer of the Kansas Bioscience Authority, likens the new lab to a bank vault in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean. He said such mainland-based facilities in Canada and elsewhere have proven to be safe. “In some respects there’s been a demonizing of biocontainment research,” Thornton said. “The goal here is to protect agriculture. The threat is not a modern research facility. The threat is specifically one posed by accidental release or terrorist threat. I think those are the key issues that drive the importance of this lab.”

R-CALF’s Bullard acknowledges there are benefits to housing a research facility at a major university, such as the availability of additional grant dollars. “The problem we see is the safety factor,” he said. “It is inherently risky to conduct this research on the mainland. “We’ve heard the argument that research could be conducted better on the mainland because of the likelihood that researchers would be more willing to live on the mainland,” he said. “We’ve seen no studies and no substantiation that we couldn’t have a world-class research facility on Plum Island following upgrades to that facility.”