U.S. Department of Agriculture - FY 1998 Testimony

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, my name is Anne Vidaver and I am the Chairman of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Committee on Agricultural, Food and Industrial Microbiology, which is a part of the Society's Public and Scientific Affairs Board. I am also Head of the Department of Plant Pathology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I would like to thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of the ASM on the fiscal year (FY) 1998 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research budget.

The ASM is the largest and oldest single life science society in the world representing over 42,000 members employed in academe, industry, and government. ASM members are involved in many different areas of microbiological research including that which is directly related to agriculture involving foodborne diseases, new and emerging plant and animal diseases, soil erosion and soil biology, agricultural biotechnology, and the development of new agricultural products and processes. In addition, the ASM has been an active member of the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM), a coalition of professional societies and organizations involved in formulating research directions and needs for agricultural research.

Agricultural research is viewed as having one of the best returns on investment of the federal dollar. The ability of the U.S. to provide low cost, high quality food and fiber to consumers and remain competitive in world markets will depend greatly on our ability to develop new technologies and innovations. Regrettably, public investment in agricultural research has been stagnant for several years impeding scientific advancement and progress. Agricultural research, despite the recognized importance of the agricultural sector to the U.S. economy, is nearly the lowest research investment for all federal agencies conducting research. Mr. Chairman, if the U.S. public wants to continue to experience the success of the agricultural sector of this country, including exports, then it must be understood that continued, sustained federal investment in agricultural research is necessary.

New and Emerging Infectious Diseases in Plants and Animals

I bring to the attention of this subcommittee a threat to the U.S. agricultural system that requires immediate attention - the threat of new and emerging infectious diseases. Like the human population, U.S. agriculture is also experiencing severe problems caused by new and emerging infectious diseases in plants and animals. Changes in agricultural practices, population growth, climate, microbial evolution, animal migration, and international trade and travel are all factors in the threat of introducing new plant and animal diseases into the U.S. agriculture system. The lack of knowledge to manage effectively and control new and reemerging infectious diseases often leads to very serious consequences.

Some examples of new and reemerging infectious disease threats to U.S. agriculture include:

Karnal bunt disease of wheat which was not detected in the U.S. prior to March 1996. With the detection of Karnal bunt in several states including Arizona, Texas, and California, the U.S. wheat export market is at risk.

More than 150 years after late blight disease devastated potato crops in the U.S. and Europe and led to the Irish potato famine, this disease is again creating problems worldwide. The effects of the disease were not noticed in the U.S. until 1989 when late blight was severe in the Pacific Northwest. By 1995 most potato and tomato production areas were affected. Scientists are concerned that exotic strains of the disease will cause more severe disease outbreaks in the U.S.

In cattle, tuberculosis is a reemerging disease with a serious new manifestation, the increased occurrence of drug-resistant strains. TB-infected cattle can infect other animals, including farmed deer. Cattle also can transmit the disease to humans and cause severe illness.

In April 1996, the ASM sponsored a congressional briefing that brought this subject to the attention of policy makers. Scientists urged that a more comprehensive strategic approach should be undertaken to include surveillance, basic and applied research, and preventive measures when researching infectious diseases of both plants and animals on a broad basis. Delineating common principles and technology for disease diagnosis can be useful and may lead to a more cost-effective use of materials for testing. Environmental monitoring of changes in habitats, land use patterns, and mean temperatures can provide a better understanding of disease agents and conditions conducive to disease outbreaks.

The ASM strongly supports the $2.5 million in the proposed Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) budget to fund the Emerging Exotic Diseases of Livestock, and the $2.5 million to support the Administration's Emerging Infectious Diseases Initiative to develop methods to reduce risk to U.S. crop production from infection with exotic foreign and new domestic plant diseases. In addition, the ASM encourages the ARS to support coordination, communication, and new program development in comparative pathobiology across a broad range of plants and animals as a way of more fully understanding and managing disease agents that infect them and host response.

Support for Genetic Resources

Microbial collections have served as valuable resources to scientists conducting research in agriculture, medicine and the environment. Preserving the diversity of strains that are important to plant and animal health is needed to develop new host resistance in plants and to develop effective vaccines to protect animals. Understanding and using microbial diversity is an essential component of fundamental research. Researchers need to be able to document and have access to beneficial and destructive microbial strains in order to address future needs of agriculture. The ASM supports the $2 million within the ARS budget for Genetic Resources. This funding will support a new microbial genetic resources effort and allow ARS to support partially national collections that have been displaced.

Competitive Grant Funding

Competitive research grants provide the most effective and efficient return to the public. ASM supports the National Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program (NRICGP) and believes that an open, merit and peer review process is one of the best ways to allocate federal research funds to the scientific community. The NRICGP is extremely important to the future of U.S. agriculture, yet it receives only a fraction of the USDA budget to carry out its mission. The ASM once again urges Congress to fund the NRICGP at the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions' request level of $138.0 million for FY98. Adequate funding of the NRICGP would strengthen the commitment of the USDA to the competitive merit review process, provide funds for fundamental research with long term potential for new discoveries, and better sustain key areas of basic research. The NRICGP continues to make scientific advancements despite its continued under funding. For instance:

Microbial pathogens represent the most serious contamination problem facing the U.S. food supply. Research supported by the NRI has led to the development of immunomicrobial biosensors for the detection of Salmonella in foods. Research will continue to expand this technology to include Listeria monocytogenes and E. coli O157:H7. This technology provides the foundation for rapid on-site analyses of foods.

The NRI supported research that developed the first transgenic soybean cultivar that produces its own environmentally benign insecticide. Its use will reduce the needs for pesticide application, making it economical and environmentally sound.

Food Safety

Foodborne illness continues to pose a major public health problem in the U.S. In a recent report it was estimated that as many as 9,000 deaths and 6.5 to 33 million illnesses in the U.S. each year are food-related. The same report estimated the economic impact of foodborne illnesses at a total cost of $6.5 billion. (The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, 1994). Assuring the safety of the food supply continues to be a major concern of the federal government. Earlier this year the President announced the Presidential Food Safety Initiative (PFSI), which is an interagency effort to respond to the increased incidences of foodborne illnesses by implementing new food safety intervention measures. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are government partners in this initiative.

Microorganisms continue to adapt to their changing environments and begin to "out smart" current techniques to control their presence. Many foodborne microbes have developed resistance to conventional food preservation and disinfection techniques and continue to proliferate. Ninety percent of all confirmed foodborne disease outbreaks have been due to microbes. To illustrate the growing magnitude of the problem, one need only to examine the number of FDA regulated food product recalls because of life threatening bacteria. In 1988, FDA recalled 79 products due to life threatening microbial hazards. In 1995, the number of recalls was up to 378.

USDA

In the USDA proposed budget, funding for the PFSI can be found within the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) and the Agricultural Research Service. Specifically, the President has proposed $1.1 million in funding to FSIS to provide HACCP training to state and local food regulatory officers and support expanded pathogen data analysis from the CDC; $2 million in funding to CSREES for a new competitive research special grants program for food safety research to focus on pre-harvest and post-harvest slaughter issues related to biological factors including pathogen detection and control, processing and handling practices; $2 million in funding to the CSREES Extension Service to expand existing food safety programs including training programs to support the implementation of HACCP and safe handling practices for industry and consumers; $2.5 million in funding to ARS to allow scientists to explore post-harvest means to control pathogens. Research will assist FSIS and FDA in their regulatory roles to control contaminants of both plant and animal derived foods. The ASM supports PFSI and the proposed funding at FDA and USDA to begin addressing this serious and growing problem of foodborne diseases in the U.S.

Animal Care Program

The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) must fulfill a mandate dictated by law to regulate and enforce laboratory animal care. APHIS must be in a position to verify that it has conducted adequate and timely inspections of research facilities involved in animal research to allay public concern. The ASM supports the President's request of $10 million to adequately fund the animal care program within APHIS.

The ASM would like to thank you again for the opportunity to testify this morning and would welcome any questions you may have.

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