Ag Secretary Urges Congress to Approve Bird Flu Funding

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The government needs billions of dollars from Congress to better prepare for the possibility of a bird flu outbreak, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Wednesday.

The Senate is considering $3.8 billion for bird flu preparedness in a defense bill passed by the House early Monday. Agriculture plays a small but crucial role in protecting poultry flocks, and Johanns' agency would get nearly $100 million of the money.

"We'll absolutely do the best we can with the resources we have," Johanns said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Needless to say, that would really help our efforts here."

The Agriculture Department already is conducting surveillance and has a vaccination program. But that is "probably not to the extent we could do, that's for sure, with the additional funding," Johanns told the AP.

The secretary also indicated the government will scale back its higher level of testing for mad cow disease. After the first case of mad cow disease two years ago, officials increased testing from about 55 to 1,000 daily.

Authorities have tested 556,143 animals and turned up a second case in a Texas-born cow in June. The number tested is about 1 percent of the 45 million adult cows in the United States.

"It was not a food safety initiative at all — it was an attempt to get an idea of the condition of our herd," Johanns said.

The expanded testing was intended to last until this month. Johanns said testing won't be scaled back today or tomorrow.

"But certainly sometime after the first of the year, we'll really start to engage in what that future testing regimen should be like," he said.

Johanns, a former Nebraska governor, ended the year on a high note. When he took office on Jan. 21, ending a Japanese embargo on U.S. beef was Johanns' top priority.

Japan finally lifted its mad cow disease-related ban last week, opening a market that had been the most lucrative for U.S. cattle producers and meat processors. It was worth $1.4 billion to the industry in 2003.

Johanns said another major trading partner, South Korea, may soon end its embargo on U.S. beef.

"We've restored the vast percentage of trade in beef," he said.

The first American shipments of beef arrived last week in Japan. Johanns said that makes a strong case for the department's plan to have a nationwide system of tracking livestock movements. Officials have said they would let the industry run the animal identification program.

"Those that are able to trace and verify and identify their animals were able to get into the Japan market overnight," Johanns said.

Trade issues will dominate Johanns' agenda in the coming year. The secretary returned Monday from World Trade Organization talks in Hong Kong, where agriculture played a central role. There was no agreement on a broad framework for reducing subsidies, but Johanns said there is still plenty of time in 2006 to reach a global deal.

In the meantime, Congress will be preparing to write a new farm bill, which provides for the subsidies at issue in the trade talks. The department held 52 forums nationwide on the farm bill — 22 by Johanns himself — and will use the input from farmers to assemble ideas for the legislation.

"Anyone who ignores trade is jeopardizing 27 percent of the receipts for farmers and ranchers," Johanns said. "So the WTO process is definitely something we pay attention to."