(June 27) To be or not to be is not the question.

The Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service will exist, whether in the proposed Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But a hearing conducted by the House Agriculture Committee on June 26 uncovered a lot of sentiment for limited retooling of APHIS, an agency with a $1.1 billion annual budget.

Joe Miller, senior director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said he believes the farm bureau will advocate that the Bush administration move border inspectors and port of entry officials into the Department of Homeland Security and leave the rest to the USDA.

“Our major concern is that you have an agency (Homeland Security) whose stated purpose is to protect the U.S. against terrorism and help the U.S. recover from terrorism,” he said. What kind of priority and funding, he asked, will APHIS be able to secure to fight the unintentional spread of diseases and pests such as citrus canker and Medfly?

“We have a whole host of diseases that are already here,” he said.

In the Agriculture Committee hearing, Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, said the Bush Administration proposal to move APHIS needs careful review.

Stenholm expressed disappointment that the Bush administration did not send Office of Homeland Security director Tom Ridge or any official to testify before the committee, while asking Congress to do massive work to reorganize APHIS under a Department of Homeland Security.

“I hope this is not indicative of the level of commitment as this process goes forward,” Stenholm said.

Those who testified at the hearing agreed on the need to strengthen homeland security but warned against transferring all APHIS duties to the Department of Homeland Security. Most were concerned that disease and pest eradication efforts would get lower priority in the new department.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture has sent letters to members of Congress warning that the relocation of APHIS could diminish biosecurity efforts.

Bob Odom, agriculture commissioner for Louisiana, told the committee he was worried federal and state cooperation might be at risk.

“There is extensive state and federal cooperation to address sanitary and plant health issues, and this could be placed in serious jeopardy by this legislation,” he said.

There is strong bipartisan support for homeland security legislation, and Ridge advised Congress at another hearing June 26 that President Bush’s plan is not set in stone. Congress is expected to write legislation creating the Department of Homeland Security by late summer.

In other news, Ridge reiterated his stance on combining food safety agencies, saying they eventually may all be under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. A Reuters report indicated agencies with some involvement in food safety include the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Commerce Department, the U.S. Customs Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It may be subject to consideration from Congress down the road,” he said.

Miller said the farm bureau is opposed to a single food safety agency.

“We think the agencies are working together,” he said

Some argue that a single agency for food safety would bring more authority against unsafe operators and would give a single authority the power to shut down unsafe operations.