One of the nation’s oldest farm groups said Thursday a proposed foot-and-mouth disease research laboratory on the U.S. mainland, near livestock, could be an inviting target for terrorists. Commercial livestock representatives and the Bush administration insisted it would be safe to move an island lab to sites near animals.

Testimony at a House hearing showed deep divisions between farmers and ranchers over where to conduct research on the most infectious animal-only disease in the world. (Although horses cannot be infected by foot and mouth disease, they can carry the virus on their hooves, skin, hair, and possibly in their nasal passages. Restrictions on livestock transport during a foot and mouth disease outbreak could severely hamper the equine industry of a country.)

Such work now is confined to the 840-acre Plum Island, N.Y., off the northeastern tip of Long Island. The administration has spent time and money to announce five finalist sites on the mainland for a new lab. A new facility on Plum Island to replace the current, outmoded lab remains a possibility.

All sides agreed that the wrong decision would bring an economic catastrophe if a new lab failed to contain the virus within the facility. An epidemic could ruin farmers and ranchers as well as related industries in feed, transportation, exports and retail.

Leroy Watson, legislative director of the National Grange, which was founded in 1867, raised the terrorism danger in testimony opposing moving the lab to the mainland.

The location of a new laboratory near livestock “would provide an inviting vicinity for the release of FMD (foot-and-mouth disease) by terrorist or criminal elements that would be looking to maximize not only the economic damage … but also the social and political confusion and fallout,” Watson said.

Domestic groups opposed to animal research also could target a new lab, he said.

Foot-and-mouth di