After an uptick in press coverage on the impending shutdown of the Microbiological Data Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to keep the produce testing program running, at least through the end of the year.
As Food Safety News reported last week, if the program were to shut down, as it was slated to at the end of this month, public testing for pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella on commodities like tomatoes, lettuce and cantaloupes would drop by 80 percent.
“While the Microbiological Data Program does not align with USDA’s core mission, the department will continue its work with state partners using existing agreements to conduct sampling and testing through this program through the end of the year,” a spokesman told Food Safety News late Monday night.
The Obama administration did not request funding for the little-known $4.5 million program in its fiscal year 2013 budget request, arguing that the food safety program did not belong under the Agricultural Marketing Service, where it is currently housed, and Congress has so far not included the program in appropriations bills. (AMS did not respond to a question late Monday about why the Pesticide Data Program, also a food safety program, was not being targeted for elimination in the budget).
State officials who work in MDP labs, which pull produce samples in 11 states, had not been given formal notice about the future of the program as of last week, but some told Food Safety News they had been informed that regular MDP sampling would cease at the end of July. The FDA has not announced any plans to increase produce testing if MDP is cut.
The produce industry has long lobbied to eliminate MDP because its discoveries sometimes lead to food recalls, even though the program was originally created to collect data on produce contamination — data that can be used by both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to solve foodborne illness outbreaks and designate high-risk produce commodities. The produce industry has argued that recalls sparked by the program happen too late to prevent contaminated product from reaching consumers.
But public health advocates, including Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), have argued that MDP is a valuable, cost-effective public health program worth keeping. The program samples between 16,000 and 18,000 produce commodities annually, which is about four times what FDA does, even though the agency has jurisdiction over produce safety.
From 2009 to 2012, MDP found Salmonella 100 times, E. coli O157:H7 twice and Listeria monocytogenes 8 times. Over the same time period, the program sparked 23 Salmonella recalls, 2 E. coli O157:H7 recalls, and 5 Listeria recalls.
In May, FDA announced a recall after an MDP lab found Salmonella in spinach. The recall alert was issued on May 22, three days before the packaged spinach products’ best by date.
In late June, FDA announced a recall of a thousand cases of bagged lettuce after an MDP lab found Listeria in lettuce. The recall alert was issued three days after the use by date.
All MDP labs upload the ‘genetic fingerprint’ of any positives they find into CDC’s PulseNet system to help public health officials link illnesses to food products.
Last week, the Washington Post and ABC shed light on the imminent cut and handful of bloggers argued against the move. This week, a change.org petition was launched calling on the White House to reinstate funding for the program.© Food Safety News