After nearly being chopped from existence, the USDA’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP) has been saved for the remainder of 2012. However its future existence is questionable.
MDP is a national foodborne pathogen monitoring program implemented in 2001. Through cooperation with State agriculture departments and other federal agencies, MDP manages the collection, analysis, data entry and reporting of foodborne pathogens on selected agricultural commodities at the retail level.
At issue for MDP are its operation and funding. That is, although it is housed by the USDA, many, including USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and the United Fresh Produce Association (UFPA), are publicly stating that it should be operated by the FDA. However, just as USDA does not have the $4 million funding for the program, neither does FDA–nor has FDA requested responsibility for it or have the resources to take on its operation, particularly as the Agency continues to work to roll out FSMA (if OMB would ever move the provisions off its desk).
As explained in an article in The Produce News last week, “The Obama administration did not request funding for MDP…. Neither the House nor the Senate bills include funding, but the measures have yet to gain final approval.”
MDP was designed to provide monitoring data on pathogenic E. coli (STEC), E. coli 0157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella spp in selected fruits and vegetables at retail. It collects samples from 11 participating states, representing about 50 percent of the nation’s population and all regions of the country. Collaborating with CDC, MDP communicates immediately any pathogens isolated from MDP samples.
The MDP program is one of those federal programs that has a tendency to polarize opinions. In short, the industry hates it and consumer organizations love it. So why the polarity and what is a reasonable middle ground?
The first problem with the program is that oftentimes by the time a positive is found, the product is not only in the market place but likely consumed or close to its expiration date – so there is little to no direct public health protection following detection of a positive sample. Second, the tracking/supplier data around that produce is often not robust, so it can be a major challenge to determine which lot numbers to recall or which farms/processors are implicated. Thus recalls get broad and FDA has little data to go on to explore the original source of the problem.
So is there a good side to this program? It is currently the only program that provides a glimpse of the prevalence of key microbial agents in high-risk fresh produce, so from that perspective, it provides good information. If the sampling were done at the correct place in the supply chain with the correct data by the correct Agency with appropriate funding, it could be both a public health win and tolerable for the produce industry.
So what does this Utopian MDP program look like that will allow it to continue to provide useful information? How about something like the following:
- Hold product while MDP conducts tests to eliminate consumer exposure to any positive samples.
- Ensure that when a sample is taken, the product tracking information is complete to allow FDA to narrow down the source quickly.
- Put the program under the Agency that has responsibility for produce – FDA.
- Fund the program so that it can operate quickly and efficiently.
While FDA is not eager to take on the program, it has acknowledged its value to the Reportable Food Registry (RFR). The FDA released its second annual report on the RFR in April (covering the September 2010-September 2011 reporting period). As reported in an April 23 article in The Packer, the FDA said part of the reason that there was an increase in produce primary reports was because of alerts from the MDP. According to the FDA report, “While this information is intended to determine the effectiveness of procedures to reduce or eliminate harmful microorganisms, the results of MDP tests are shared with RFR responsible parties who may be required to submit the information to the (registry).”
While supporting a testing program by FDA that is “scientifically accurate and effective in monitoring and protecting public health,” UFPA has, however, also urged the elimination of the MDP. According to an AP report, it wants the private sector to do more of its own testing, saying that MDP has cost growers millions in produce recalls and unfairly targeted farmers who aren’t responsible for contaminating the food, since testing at the retail level means that contamination could have occurred at any prior point in distribution.
Like many federal programs, if the MDP program was redesigned with input from the food industry, in this case the produce sector, it could be a lot more effective, less costly to the industry and provide better data. But maybe I am being too logical!
Note: This has article has been corrected. The article originally stated that MDP samples at the retail level when in fact the program pulls samples at produce distribution centers.There are a few exceptions: MDP allows states to collect at retail level when the product is not available at the distribution level and it is bagged or in a sealed container.
David Acheson, former Assistant Commissioner for Food Protection in the FDA, is a partner at Leavitt Partners. This commentary was originally posted July 26, 2012 on the Leavitt Partners Food Safety blog.© Food Safety News