Saying America's blood supply has never been safer, American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole turned a "symbolic shovel of earth" to break ground for the new Northern Utah Blood Center.

The ceremony also celebrated the half-century mark of American Red Cross Blood Services.The American Red Cross is holding a huge four-day convention at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City through Monday. Besides meetings and exhibits, an estimated 2,000 participants will hear from speakers including Dole and Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell.

The years collecting and distributing blood have not been without their challenges, Dole noted. The agency began collecting blood during World War II. In peacetime, it started the first nationwide collection and distribution center.

But a few years ago, "the age of blood-borne disease swooped down on us with a vengeance," said Dole, referring specifically to hepatitis and AIDS. Since then, many people have been afraid to donate or receive blood, she said.

There is no reason to be afraid of transfusions, she assured the four dozen people who gathered for the groundbreaking.

The American Red Cross recently completed a $287 million, seven-year transformation of its blood operation. The result has been the safest blood supply in the world and state-of-the-art collection, testing and distribution centers like the new Utah center that together provide half of the nation's 14 million pint blood donations.

"We have left behind the days of the comfort of industry averages," Dole said, "and are now the undisputed leader" in providing a safe blood supply.

In the early 1990s, the chances of receiving tainted blood were 1 in 122,000. Now it's less than 1 in 700,000, she said.

The new blood center, 6600 S. 900 East, formerly a Sears Home Life Center, will serve as headquarters and collection-and-processing site for the American Red Cross Blood Services, according to spokeswoman Alison Barnett.

Scheduled to open in about six months, it will join smaller, existing centers in Orem and Ogden, as well as one planned for St. George. But those centers are just collection sites.

The new facility, made up of 34,000 square feet, will house 100 employees. It will include 11 donor beds, blood storage for distribution to 35 area hospitals (with room to expand, if needed), laboratory manufacturing of blood components, a specialized reference lab and special quality control measures.

The center serves the "Lewis and Clark Region" made up of 310,000 square miles and 123 hospitals in Utah, Idaho and Nevada - the largest geographic region for the American Red Cross.

Dole said that 80 percent of all the blood collected in Utah for donation comes through the Red Cross, which took over the contract last April.