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Archive for Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Official says Karnal bunt outbreak mishandled

September 11, 2001

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— The federal government mishandled the outbreak of an infectious wheat disease that threatened wheat farmers this summer, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official said Monday.

"There were some dumb mistakes made," said Bill Hawks, undersecretary of marketing and regulatory programs. "I accept full responsibility because it ultimately comes to me. ... It's my plan not to let those mistakes take place again."

Karnal bunt attacked wheat crops in four Texas counties, but didn't spread to Oklahoma and Kansas. The fungal disease is harmless to humans but causes a fishy taste and odor in flour, which ruins the wheat's export value.

Hawk is the keynote speaker at a national conference on Karnal bunt to be held Wednesday and Thursday in Oklahoma City.

The outbreak was so bad this summer the Agriculture Department said farmers will get up to $4.5 million in compensation for destroyed crops. Compensation last year totaled less than $50,000.

Some Oklahoma farmers said they were not given enough warning that the disease could be spreading from combines that had picked up the fungus while cutting in Texas.

After the disease was discovered in Texas, Oklahoma officials began inspecting combines at the borders. By then, though, much of the wheat in southern Oklahoma had been harvested and many combines had moved on to the north.

Oklahoma Agriculture Commissioner Dennis Howard said the federal government was slow to warn that the disease was spreading and contends he shouldn't have been left out of a conference call that could have given the state more warning.

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