Agriculture industry representatives gathered Monday to discuss the vulnerability of the nation's food supply to bioterrorism and worried about the potential economic ruin it would bring.

“It would be a depression of the first order,” said James Marsden, a Kansas State University professor of meat science. Marsden told about 140 people at the Midwest Conference on Agricultural Bioterrorism that just one case of foot and mouth disease would cause irreparable harm to the nation's agriculture industry that accounts for 22 million jobs and 16.4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

The two-day conference is an effort by the Koch Crime Institute, state Department of Agriculture and Kansas State to raise awareness about the real threat and vulnerabilities of the food supply. The event was scheduled in response to Sept. 11 but comes two weeks after an unfounded rumor that cattle had tested positive for foot-and-mouth disease at the Holton Livestock Exchange.

“There are lots of players and it's important that we speak to one another,” said Lisa Taylor, agriculture department spokeswoman.

Jerry Wells, executive director of the crime institute, said the conference is expected to become an annual event as a means to share latest technologies and review immediate concerns. “The threat is real and the incident of the foot-and-mouth scare just highlights that threat,” Wells said.

Though the tests were negative, the rumor is blamed for a drop in commodity prices, costing producers an estimated $50 million. It also caused restaurant stocks to decline on Wall Street.

Kansas State University President Jon Wefald said the university has invested significant time and resources in the past decade to build a faculty of experts. That has positioned the 21,900-student university as a leader in food safety research.

Wefald said he remains optimistic state and federal money will be forthcoming for a research center. He echoed other presenters, who noted that America's agriculture machine was feeding the world and keeping food prices low at home and disposable income available in the economy.

“American agriculture is quite simply the greatest industry we have in America today,” he said.
Legislators are considering a bill to issue $143 million in bonds to finance research centers on biomedicine at the University of Kansas, food safety at Kansas State University and aviation at Wichita State University.

The conference is being held while health officials are meeting for their annual conference in Atlanta at the Centers for Disease Control. As in Manhattan, a major topic is the vulnerability of the nation's food supply to bioterrorism and the ability of the public health system to react.

Topeka Capital Journal, Associated Press