The gift-giving holidays came early for supporters of the perennially underfunded Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank. In November, Congress approved $800,000 for FARAD—the single largest appropriation in the program's 18-year history—as part of the $75.9 billion agriculture appropriations package in fiscal 2002. President Bush signed it later that month.
"We're ecstatic," said Dr. Jim Riviere, director of the FARAD site at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, one of three veterinary institutes overseeing the program. "It gets us back into full operation."
In addition to the one-year FARAD appropriation, several veterinary programs received funding at levels above last year's expenditures. These include $40 million for the first phase of the initiative to consolidate and modernize the Department of Agriculture's National Veterinary Services Laboratories, the National Animal Disease Center, and the Center for Veterinary Biologics in Ames, Iowa; and 14 additional inspectors and support staff for the Animal Care unit of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Furthermore, $15 million was appropriated for prevention and enforcement programs dealing with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and $1 million will go toward analyzing risks associated with genetically modified foods used for animal feeds.
Under the purview of the USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, FARAD is a computer-based decision support system designed to provide livestock producers, extension specialists, and veterinarians with information about how to avoid drug, pesticide, and environmental contaminant problems in food animals. The program explains which drugs can legally be used in food animals, while also helping ensure that producers are in compliance with the drug tolerances and withdrawal times established by the Food and Drug Administration.
In addition to N.C. State University, the veterinary institutes at the universities of Florida and California-Davis coordinate FARAD. Florida maintains the database, while the other universities field queries through the FARAD Web site and toll-free hotline.
Although FARAD is recognized as contributing to humane food animal production and a safe food supply, the inability to secure adequate annual funding had resulted in serious cuts in the program's operations.
FARAD may be a victim of its own success, according to Dr. Alistair Webb of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, where he oversees the program database. Lawmakers have a tendency to put the dollars where the problems are. The purpose of FARAD is to prevent such problems by protecting U.S. food from harmful drug and pesticide contamination.
"It basically got neglected to the point where it nearly died," Dr. Webb said of the food safety program, started in 1982 by the USDA, initially on an experimental basis.
Support for FARAD has come through annual merit-review grants matched to in-kind support provided by the three universities. An estimated $200,000 has been directed to FARAD annually since its inception—well below the needed $600,000—except in 1999, when funding was increased to $500,000, but for that year only. In real dollar value, however, federal support has actually dropped by more than 50 percent.
In 2000, FARAD was moved to the Integrated Research, Education, and Extension Competitive Grants Program. The reviewers acknowledged that FARAD was necessary but did not see the national food safety program fitting into a competitive program. Funding was denied and it looked as if FARAD were finished. But a last-minute appropriation of $285,000 for fiscal 2001 and subsidies from participating universities kept it on life support for one more year.
"For the last two years, we have been kept alive, but the body has been barely warm," Dr. Webb explained.
At FARAD's high point three years ago, the sites operated with a total staff of approximately 16 highly trained personnel. Queries were run through a network of veterinary toxicologists and pharmacologists who accessed the Florida database and other material for withdrawal information. But for the past two years, FARAD has been fielding calls on an emergency basis only, lacking the staff and resources to address all but the most serious calls.
On average, the few remaining staff handle three to four emergency calls to the hotline a week, according to Dr. Riviere. He added that it is impossible to estimate the number of callers who hang up after hearing the hotline message that only the most serious situations can be addressed.
Following the funding problems for 2001, the AVMA, along with FARAD directors at N.C. State, UC-Davis, and UF, lobbied select legislators to support a line item in the 2002 budget for $1 million for the food safety program. Although the appropriation is below the requested level, Dr. Riviere said it is enough to bring on additional staff who can answer nonemergency calls beginning in January.