Food Supply Protection Safeguards Studied

Article excerpt

The ability of the public and private sectors to safeguard the food supply in Oklahoma from bacteria, disease and terrorists is being evaluated by state legislators.

Another goal of the newly created Food Safety Task Force, said Rep. James E. Covey, D-Custer City, is to preserve public confidence. Consumers need to feel relatively secure that what they eat is not contaminated, said Covey, who chairs the task force and the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

A primary focus of the task force will be an appraisal of laboratories in Oklahoma.

Sen. Paul Muegge, D-Tonkawa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, mentioned a dairy laboratory at Tulsa, a lab in the state Agriculture Department headquarters in Oklahoma City, a lab maintained by the State Health Department and an animal disease diagnostic lab at Oklahoma State University.

"We might want to contact private vendors, too, and see what's out there in the way of third-party testing," said Sen. Bruce Price, D-Hinton, vice chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Covey said the Food Safety Task Force should procure from laboratories in the state "an assessment of their facilities." He said legislators want the labs to submit a report outlining what their capabilities are and what they need to do their mission in the area of food safety.

"We've got to look at these facilities because they're our first line of defense," Muegge said. "So far as I know, none of our labs has the capability of dealing with a biohazard like anthrax."

Muegge, who was elected vice chair of the task force, also said some of the laboratories in Oklahoma are not really capable of dealing with public health scares such as the "mad cow" and hoof- and-mouth outbreaks that occurred in the United Kingdom.

Those diseases have taken on a more ominous tone since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., said Rep. Clay Pope, D-Loyal.

Pope, a Kingfisher County farmer, is vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and was the principal author of House Bill 1190, which created the House/Senate Food Safety Task Force.

HB 1190 established the new task force to study the administrative, policy and fiscal implications of source identity, disease transmission, country of origin and other food safety concerns.

Besides mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth, Price reminded the task force about the potential impact of less familiar but more common food-supply diseases, such as salmonella.

He reminded lawmakers of a public health scare over cyanide- laced grapes from Chile and mentioned an incident about a decade ago that involved watermelons. Two growers in Bakersfield, Calif. …