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A Budget Cut Only the Produce Industry Could Love

You’ve probably never heard of the Microbiological Data Program (MDP) but if you eat fresh produce, you should, because it’s currently on President Obama’s budgetary chopping block. The MDP is a small ($5 million annually) pathogen monitoring program tucked away in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It tests fruits and vegetables for deadly bugs like E. coli, salmonella, and listeria.

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While the testing program may be inexpensive, it’s critical because no other federal mechanism currently exists to conduct regular testing of fresh produce. (The Food and Drug Administration–which technically has jurisdiction over produce safety–conducts only limited inspections.)

To date, the MDP has tested high-risk produce such as alfalfa sprouts, cilantro, green onions, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and other leafy greens. Every one of these vegetables has caused a food-borne illness outbreak or recall over the years, some of them lethal thanks in part to an industrialized food system that transports bugs nationwide. You might recall, a shocking 34 people (and counting) died from a listeria outbreak last year in cantaloupe in 26 states (yes, melon – also on USDA’s tested produce list). That tragedy alone should cause the Obama Administration to rethink this thoughtless budget cut.

It’s not like this is some wasteful government program. It’s a relatively cheap way to help save lives, so what’s going on? Here is how food safety attorney Bill Marler explains who just might be behind the idea:

The produce industry hates this program as it has found pathogens in domestic and imported samples and FDA has responded to the information and recalled products. The produce industry–via the fruit and vegetable advisory committee–recommended to USDA and Congress that the program be terminated.


The produce industry hates the program? Now we’re getting somewhere.

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According to an AP story, lobbyists with the United Fresh Produce Association and other major trade associations “have repeatedly pushed the government in recent years to get rid of the comprehensive testing program, saying it has cost growers millions in produce recalls.” (Isn’t that the idea–to get tainted food off the market?) Instead, industry suggests more private sector testing.

More private sector testing? Like the third-party “audit” that missed the deadly listeria in the cantaloupe at Jensen’s Farms? According to a Congressional report on the matter released in January, FDA called it “an inherent conflict of interest” for a private auditor to provide safe handling advice in exchange for payment. Moreover, such auditors don’t have to adhere to scientific standards, are not regulated by the FDA, and cannot enforce FDA rules.

This is also the same United Fresh Produce Association that claims to care about food safety but does not want to pay the fees necessary to fully implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, the new law intended to improve inspection and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the United Fresh Produce Association has spent more than a million dollars a year on lobbying in each of the past three years. Of course only some of that money was spent lobbying on food safety but the trade group must expect a good return on its investment.

For its part, USDA claims the program doesn’t belong there but is better suited to FDA, raising once again, the challenges caused by our currently fragmented oversight system and lack of a single, effective food safety agency.

The Food Safety Modernization Act may help fix some of these problems, but we still have to find the funding. Obama’s budget also seeks a 17 percent increase for FDA, but almost all of the new money would come from industry fees, which again, industry is dead set against. Moreover, it’s not at all clear that FDA will pick up the slack from USDA’s testing of fresh produce.

In sum, Obama is proposing to cut a nominal food safety program that’s working fine, while suggesting new funds come from fees that industry will fight. Of course, testing won’t solve all problems either. Not with an industrialized food system that consistently externalizes costs in favor of profits. Maybe if we examined how massive consolidation of produce growers, processors, and distributors contributes to these nasty outbreaks in the first place, and considered better prevention through smaller-scale production models, we wouldn’t have to haggle over this testing program. But meantime, can’t we find somewhere else to cut $5 million that doesn’t make our problems even worse?

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Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, recently joined the Center for Food Safety as a Policy Consultant, where she will help CFS expand into issues related to food safety and nutrition. This commentary was first posted Feb. 22, 2012 on the Center for Food Safety website.  

© Food Safety News
  • Traci Roberts

    Please don’t assume the ignorance of your readers and please do attempt to sound a bit less like a public relations hype person. I get what you are saying – but Food Safety News is known and appreciated because they go the extra mile to bring the facts into the fray. We all know they have a conflict of interest – but they do a good job of bringing well considered topics. So for your article, you completely washed over the “why” the industry may be asking to conduct its own testing. I’m sure you know about the statistics on the effectiveness of product testing. It was relevant here. You note that the USDA program has tested many of the foods that have also had outbreaks. Then you jump to the assumption that that testing was beneficial in some way. How did it help? It would be a lot more interesting to if you were to delve into the complexities of an issue and not just Rush us to your own conclusions. Hopefully, you’ll get into the groove and begin providing actual information. PS – appreciated the link to the Obama 17% FDA budget piece. Thank you.

  • http://Google TP

    This will comfort the parent whose child is listed as critical due to a pathogen from his vegetables.
    At what point does lobbying become a factor in life and death
    (1M).

  • http://www.marlerblog.com bill marler

    Traci Roberts – Would you please point out the conflict of interest please? Just because I fund Food Safety News, can you point to something where Food Safety News has acted like FOX?
    You are always free to call me anytime 1-206-346-1890 if you think we have violated our readers trust or have shown a real conflict of interest.

  • http://www.marlerblog.com bill marler

    Traci – in addition to FOX I should add MSNBC. As for your charge of a conflict of interest, perhaps you missed my piece on Transparency last week:
    After Food Safety News broke the story that Taco Bell was the mysterious “Restaurant Chain A” linked to a Salmonella outbreak that sickened 68 people in 10 states, ABC Evening News praised Food Safety News for shining light on this story and the issue of the government’s lack of transparency when businesses make people sick. Other media, such as the LA Times, Reuters, Daily Mail, The Consumerist, CBS News, Huffington Post, Fox News, and MSNBC, also hailed Food Safety News for shinning the light on the mystery taco restaurant. Most recently, Barry Estabrook wrote a piece for The Atlantic detailing Food Safety New’s muckraking skills, but praised me and not the people who did all the work.
    Given the amount of attention Food Safety News received in the last week, I thought it might be time again to show how I fit into Food Safety News.
    As publisher, I fund Food Safety News (although we are beginning to get big interest for advertisers – which has its own new issues) and make sure competent people run it. Frankly, that is the easy part. The core of our team Mary, Gretchen, James and Cookson in Seattle, Dan in Denver and Helena in D.C. do an amazing job of keeping up on the news and managing our many contributors.
    So, other than writing checks, what do I do?
    From time to time, I write Publisher’s Platform, and I will suggest a story idea or give advice on how to approach a topic – but the editors and reporters decide what ends up on the site every day. With the Taco Bell story, I suggested that they had an opportunity to uncover the name of the restaurant and they did it by putting in the time filing records requests and making phone calls that ultimately resulted in getting the name.
    After nearly 20 years of concentrating on foodborne illness litigation, I have by default gained a level of knowledge and perspective that lets me spot the important stories. When big food safety stories break, I usually have mainstream journalists asking for my comments. Most of the time, Food Safety News does not quote me or get my opinion on a story, even when the mainstream guys do. It really is important to me to maintain a clear wall between my interests as a lawyer and my interest in supporting objective food safety reporting.
    I created Food Safety News because a lot of food safety stories were not getting attention. It is a public service and a labor of love. It doesn’t make me – or anyone – any money, but for the last two years it has been filling a journalistic niche that no one else has the time or resources to fill. As conventional newsrooms continue trimming staff and budgets, readers will have to rely on more of their important information coming from sources operating out of genuine concern, not profitability.
    Food Safety News is not a mouthpiece for my law firm, Marler Clark. But, it would not exist without it. Food Safety News editors Dan Flynn and Mary Rothschild edit and review every article that goes up on Food Safety News, including this one. Between them, they have over a half a century of experience on major newspaper staffs and television news teams. At the end of the day, they are the ones who make sure Food Safety News is a place where readers from the public, government and industry come looking for fact-based reporting on everything related to food safety.
    I hope that you find their work as helpful and informative as I do. If you have any questions, please ask. If you have ideas for stories, please tell us. If you have suggestions on how we can be better, please do not hold back.
    Again, if you have something to say, feel free to comment and/or call.

  • PLK

    I am a strong advocate of using food testing to monitor the safety of foods. However, many misconceptions exist about the value of food testing, and I think we have insufficient information about the MDP to draw any conclusions about its value. First, with the tremendous amount of produce (including the “high risk” produce group) harvested and shipped on a daily basis, it seems the probability of detecting contaminated produce is low – especially with a small and limited scope testing program. Second, until somebody develops the miraculous “tricorder” for food testing (i.e., tests for everything with instant results), the likelihood of recalling contaminated produce before it is either consumed or discarded is small.
    With regard to testing our way to food safety, I suggest reading the short article by Shaun Kennedy in Science magazine (12 December 2008: Vol. 322 no. 5908 pp. 1641-1643). As for our inability to recall produce or other perishable foods in a timely manner, I refer you to the HHS Inspector General’s Report OEI-02-06-00210 of March, 2009.
    I haven’t seen any reports about how many recalls were issued by the MDP. Does anyone know? How many cases of contaminated produce that resulted in outbreaks did the MDP miss? Perhaps the MDP funds would be better spent elsewhere? Perhaps by moving the funds to other food testing/monitoring programs conducted by other agencies? Perhaps by funding more food safety inspectors or auditors?