Katrina Food Aid Blocked by U.S. Rules

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 14, 2005

In the early days of September, as military helicopters plucked desperate New Orleanians from rooftops and Red Cross shelters swelled with the displaced, nearly 400,000 packaged meals landed on a tarmac at Little Rock Air Force Base and were whisked by tractor-trailer to Louisiana.

But most of the $5.3 million worth of food never reached the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Instead, because of fears about mad cow disease and a long-standing ban on British beef, the rations routinely consumed by British soldiers have sat stacked in a warehouse in Arkansas for more than a month.

Now, with some of the food set to expire in early 2006 and U.S. taxpayers spending $16,000 a month to store the meals, the State Department is quickly and quietly looking for a needy country to take them.

In a disaster recovery effort that has been widely criticized as slow, inefficient and at times wasteful, the long and costly journey of the British rations is a tale of good intentions colliding with a cumbersome bureaucracy.

No fewer than six federal agencies or departments had a role in accepting, distributing and rejecting the food. Even now, there remains a disagreement within the Bush administration over which office shipped the meals to 14 locations in Louisiana and which is responsible for paying the mounting storage fees.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which oversees domestic disasters, "knew from e-mails the stuff was moving out there, but we never had control or said anything about it," said spokesman Kim Pease. "It was under control of" the U.S. Agency for International Development, he said.

But USAID spokesman Kevin Sheridan said his agency simply provided logistic support, helping deliver to the Gulf Coast region foreign donations that were acquired by the State Department.

A spokesman for the British Embassy, citing diplomatic protocol in requesting anonymity, said he was puzzled by the turn of events.

"There was a specific request for emergency ration packs, and we responded to that," he said. "We had no reason to believe there would be a problem."

What is clear is that by late on Sept. 8, inspectors from the Agriculture Department halted the distribution because the packaged meals violated import laws that "no beef or poultry of any kind is accepted from Great Britain," spokeswoman Terri Teuber said.

Since 1997, the United States has banned beef products from Britain and several other European countries that have been affected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as mad cow disease. A degenerative disease of the central nervous system, BSE is fatal in cattle and can lead to a similar illness in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

"There was a careful review of the law to determine whether there was some flexibility, and at this point that has not been the case," Teuber said.

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