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Letter From The Editor: Blood

Big Fresh has the blood on its hands.

The big fruit and vegetable lobby managed to kill a little food safety program that cost this $3 trillion government a grand total of $5 million annually. Chump change.

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Big Fresh meanwhile has its snout so far up the 2012 Farm Bill trough that it’s going to reap hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business for fruit and vegetable growers, thanks to the federal government’s willingness to take our money and put us further in debt.

But nothing for the little “trip wire” that was out there catching pathogens in fruits and vegetables – not even after last year’s cantaloupe-caused Listeria incident that killed more people than any other foodborne illness outbreak in a century.

Big Fresh, also known as the United Fresh Produce Association, through its paid lobbyists, gets the credit for the kill.

But as my more objective colleagues Helena Bottemiller and Gretchen Goetz have reported over the past few months, it was President Obama who zeroed out USDA’s 11-year old Microbiological Data Program in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Back in February, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, grilled Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the bone-headed move.   The Secretary hemmed and hawed about the MDP being inconsistent with the mission of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Actually, that’s true. The AMS has never really been much concerned about food safety, nor is Big Fresh.  

Rep. DeLauro probably would have been more effective if she’d pointed out that 7 of the 11 state laboratories involved in MDP are located in swing states and it really does not look good for the President to putting those “lab rats” out of work.

Sadly, other than the heroic stand DeLauro did make, the rest of the Congress complied.   It means the states involved will be shutting down the program in July when their laboratories get their last payment.

Speaking of payments, it will be interesting to see how much money Obama and members of Congress on the relevant committees will be collecting before this year is out from those who put fruits and vegetables on their employment line.

While putting its foot on the oxygen tube for the only program testing produce for pathogens, Big Fresh is racking up millions upon millions for fruit and vegetable growers in the 2012 Farm Bill games.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable line item alone is said to be approaching $200 million.   Big Fresh wants that money, for sure, but nothing for testing fresh produce for pathogens.

From 2002-2011, the MDP conducted tests in 42 states on 120,887 samples of fruits and vegetables, including cantaloupe, celery, green onions, hot peppers, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, bagged lettuce, parsley, peanut butter, spinach, bagged spinach, alfalfa sprouts and tomatoes.

By my calculation, these tests were completed at a cost of something north of about $200 each. Believe me, Big Fresh spilled more on the floor of their last congressional reception than that.

Leave it to Washington D.C. to kill a tiny cost-effective food safety program while being clueless about fiscal responsibility in general.

Let’s give credit to where credit is due.   Big Fresh gets credit for:

- Killing the nation’s only produce surveillance program.

- Turning Congress against the only program to collect data on the prevalence of foodborne pathogens in domestic and imported produce.

- Leaving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state health departments in the dark about the incidence of pathogens in fresh produce commodities.

Under the MDP program, positive test results were immediately reported to FDA, CDC and state health agencies.   MDP testing was responsible for 23 produce recalls during 2010 and 2011 alone, and 15 of these involved human illnesses.

Like I said, MDP testing has been a trip wire. If Big Fresh came with a brain, it would be able to figure out on its own that a system that catches problems early is best for fruit and vegetable growers.

Big Fresh, however, does not have clue.   As recently as last week, a bagged organic spinach recall for Salmonella was because an MDP lab detected the contamination.

Yes, fresh produce gets consumed pretty quickly, often before test results are known.  But that was no reason to kill MDP.  We should be going back to places where contamination has occurred and find out what’s going on.   

Had there been an early test of Jensen Farms cantaloupe, maybe some government inspector -s tate or federal – might have paid a visit and said: “Hey! Isn’t that a potato washer?”

Such a discovery might have saved as many as 36 lives that poisoned cantaloupes took last growing season. That blood is not on Big Fresh’s hands. Next time, we’ll see.

© Food Safety News
  • Brian Sauders

    Here are my comments that I recently posted on in response to an article (http://www.thepacker.com/opinion/fresh-talk-blog/MDP-finds-fans-with-Michigan-lawmakers-152724195.html) MDP on “The Packer” website:
    “Ironically industry seems to be missing the point that MDP testing has shown the vast majority of produce has no detectable levels of pathogens under surveillance. When MDP has identified foodborne pathogens in produce, we (we are an MDP lab) assess whether the pathogen’s molecular fingerprint has been associated with human illness (i.e. outbreaks) through our involvement in the CDC PulseNet surveillance program (http://www.cdc.gov/pulsenet). In some cases (http://tinyurl.com/7frcq9m) the pathogens we and other MDP labs have identified have been linked to multi-state outbreaks. In other cases, we have identified products that are contaminated with pathogenic organisms that can be recalled from distribution before any human cases of illness are reported. Given the high costs of foodborne illness (http://tinyurl.com/6vgohyp), it seems like the comparatively small investment in MDP is money wisely spent (http://tinyurl.com/A-Tiny-Program-that-Matters).”

  • http://murrayhillfarm.com chuckmuuray1

    You write with passion and I appreciate it out here in Ohio working 35 acres growing produce and poultry. You are addressing some issues head on that need to be talked about. Keep it up.
    Transparency will help and I think the consumer would like to know why there are so many recalls. Thank you for what you do, I appreciate it.

  • Ben Mark

    Big Fresh PMA/UF has been trying for years to kill every food safety program including the FSMA law. You never read a word in any of their publications about FDA’s FSMA law. They do not inform their members at all. They make them believe a GTIN number on a package does the job of food safety and traceability. The recalls in the last few days prove again, this is a money making deal by GS1 and doesn’t do any good for the farmer or consumer. PMA/UF tries to prove to FDA that this is what the industry wants and all it needs. In my opinion it’s too costly for the industry, ineffective throughout the supply chain, and dangerous for the consumer.