ALTHOUGH the President's budget has its skeptics, its call for funding for a new poultry research facility in Athens, Ga., received support from legislators during a House agricultural appropriations hearing April 16.
In 2012, a review of Agricultural Research Services (ARS) facilities was completed that highlighted locations with aging infrastructure. It identified the Southeast Poultry Disease Research Laboratory (SEPRL) "as the highest-priority facility recommended for modernization," according to the budget report.
Over the past 20 years, SEPRL has conducted crucial research on exotic poultry diseases and has the only U.S. Department of Agriculture program that provides research support to USDA's Food Safety & Inspection Service and Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Food & Drug Administration on diseases such as avian influenza, velogenic Newcastle disease and West Nile virus.
During questioning at the hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the U.S. is the world's number-one poultry producer, but "antiquated facilities cannot meet those challenges from a disease standpoint."
The fiscal 2014 budget requests $155 million to fully replace SEPRL, which has a Biological Safety Level (BSL) 2 laboratory and BSL-3 Ag facilities that were constructed in 1964 and 1976.
The 32 small buildings at these facilities no longer meet the expanded research needs of SEPRL, according to the budget. The buildings were designed for four scientists and their support staff but currently serve 12 scientists and their support staff.
The budget notes that limitations "now prevent critical, cutting-edge research from being conducted" at the facility.
During the hearing, Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D., Ga.) said he supports the funding and welcomed the plan to pay for the replacement facility in one year rather than trying to secure funding over several appropriation processes.
A press officer for Sanford explained that the modernized facility would be comprised of a smaller main laboratory building and several smaller new or renovated facilities on the site. Its bio-containment space would be divided among laboratory space for permanent SEPRL scientists, laboratory space for rotating scientists when working on projects requiring BSL-2 and BSL-3 Ag bio-containment, animal bio-containment space and administrative/office space.
In addition, the facility will include farm-to-house breeding colonies of disease-free chickens for research.
During the hearing, Vilsack also discussed the importance of increasing investment in agricultural research.
"Agricultural research has been flatlined for far too long when other areas have been more aggressive. We need to play catch-up there," Vilsack told the hearing.
SEPRL was identified through a Capital Investment Strategy, which gives Congress a more detailed look at where resources could best be used to modernize facilities.
During questioning, Rep. Sam Farr (D., Cal.), top Democrat on the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee, added that it is important to maintain strong cooperation between federal and state laboratories.
Rep. David Valadao (R., Cal.) said without long-term funding plans, there will be a decline in important infrastructure that's necessary for timely identification and detection of diseases.
Vilsack pointed out that as USDA's budget shrinks, the relationship between state and federal labs will have to be stronger because state labs "may be asked to do a little more than they have in the past."
He said it will require both to look for opportunities to leverage resources and figure out strategies to stretch the funding that is available.