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CHICAGO (Reuters) - While the threat of accidental contamination and disease has always loomed, American farmers, processors and consumers have long taken comfort in the relative safety of the nation's food supply. As with so many aspects of life in the United States, that changed on September 11. In the days following the devastating air attacks on U.S. targets, the country suddenly faced the possibility of intentional contamination of its food -- a prospect underscored by the rash of anthrax-infected mail sent to congressional leaders and media companies. Anthrax has killed at least five people since October and infected more than a dozen. If a terrorist's goal is to generate fear and deliver an economic blow, attacking the food supply would make sense, said Jerry Jaax, a Kansas State University veterinarian and bio-warfare expert. The billion-dollar losses in Europe from herd culls and food recalls after outbreaks of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease illustrate the massive economic impact when people live in fear of tainted food. One scenario that worries U.S. food industry leaders is the intentional introduction of foot-and-mouth disease, the highly contagious livestock illness that triggered mass animal slaughter and shut down trade in Europe. That could hobble the $100 billion U.S. livestock industry. "It's important to recognize that it's an economic sort of a thing," Jaax said. "It's not about people wanting to kill cows. It's about people wanting to affect our national economic infrastructure." Jaax, who served as a veterinarian in the U.S. Army for 26 years, said many of the germ warfare agents developed by the Soviet Union and other government-sponsored programs during the Cold War were based on veterinary diseases. "It was perceived by whoever was driving those programs that agricultural pathogens would be useful," he said. MORE FEDERAL FUNDS SOUGHT The Bush administration has requested an additional $1.5 billion for next year to strengthen the ability of the United States to prevent and respond to a bioterrorist attack, as part of a $40 billion homeland defense package. "We've grown stronger and better prepared, and will continue to in coming months. With these additional resources, we can place greater attention on our efforts to better ensure the safety of our food supply," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told a meeting of the U.S. National Food Processors Association on November 27. Government funds are being aimed at more numerous and more frequent inspections of food, more food inspectors, better oversight of private industries like feed production, and computerized tracking of food ingredients, especially imports. The stakes are high, however, and despite years of tightening standards in industries like meat processing and heightened measures to prevent mad cow disease, doubts remain about how prepared the U.S. is to assure a safe food supply. U.S. PREPAREDNESS STILL IN QUESTION Opinions differ as to whether the United States is prepared to handle a severe outbreak of a disease like foot-and-mouth. The United States has been free of the disease since 1929, but the February outbreak of foot-and-mouth in Britain sent shock waves through the American agricultural sector. British authorities had nearly 4 million animals destroyed in their eight-month eradication effort. In the United States, "biosecurity" became a buzzword last spring as federal and state authorities urged farmers to keep strangers away from their herds and sanitize clothing and equipment before and after contacting animals. State officials devised elaborate response plans in case of a local outbreak, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stepped up customs inspections at U.S. points of entry. But a report issued in November by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture said the federal government was still ill-prepared to handle a livestock catastrophe. "Infrastructure inadequacies, especially in terms of staffing and facilities, are now so deep that the (USDA) system cannot appropriately respond to a severe animal health crisis," the study said. Norman Cheville, dean of Iowa State University's veterinary college, agreed with the study. "We need to get our act together in a lot of ways -- make agencies that compete actually be into cooperating very seriously, and to embed all of these systems deeply into the grass-roots operations of the (veterinary) system," he said. "Relative to other countries, we have an incredibly educated farmer population. We need to take advantage of that, and make sure that they understand, when an animal dies, they must call their veterinarian," he said. FOOD PROCESSORS ON HIGH ALERT Food processors, too, have been re-examining security at their plants, a process that will continue in coming months. Most big food companies already have good security programs in place at their facilities, said Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "The big-name companies, they already have the fences up, and in many cases you have to go through a guard in order to get into the plant," he said. Doyle added that many companies are expanding their use of employee background checks. Small and medium-sized processors, however, may lack the resources to take similar steps. Considering the variety of food consumed by Americans, the U.S. food supply is "really remarkably safe," said Fergus Clydesdale, head of the University of Massachusetts' Department of Food Science. Food comes from so many sources that it would be difficult for anyone to sicken large numbers of people, he said. "Having said that," he added, "I think even a few cases of disease would strike terror into the American population, because people in the American population assume, and rightly so, that they have a safe food supply."