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LUCAS planning to meet with USDA officials to discuss wheat fungus controversy


OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas plans to meet with U.S Department of Agriculture officials Thursday to discuss the agency's handling of the possible spread of a wheat fungus.

Lucas, R-Okla., has criticized the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) after officials with the division allegedly reacted too slowly to reports of Karnal bunt disease in north-central Texas.

``I want to hear firsthand from (the) USDA why they didn't react in a timely manner to the initial reports of the disease,'' Lucas said in a statement released Wednesday. ``We must keep the wheat supply free from Karnal bunt, and farmers need to be able to trust that (the) USDA will respond more quickly and efficiently in the future.''

The disease was first suspected by a grain elevator operator in Young County, Texas, on May 24. A week later, APHIS officials confirmed the sample contained Karnal bunt. After other fields were found to contain the disease, Young and Throckmorton counties were quarantined June 8.

Oklahoma immediately quarantined its borders, turning away combines coming in from Throckmorton and Young counties unless they had USDA certificates proving they had been disinfected.

There is fear that custom harvesters, who travel north harvesting wheat for farmers as it ripens, may have spread the disease to other states.

``My concern is keeping the wheat supply free from this disease,'' Lucas said. ``Countries we trade commodities with must be assured that our wheat supply is free of Karnal bunt, or we could lose precious export dollars.''

Karnal bunt is harmless to humans, but sours the taste and smell of flour made from infected kernels. It is spread by spores, primarily through the movement of infected grain.
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