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Food Safety News

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Letter From The Editor: Produce Testing Saving Lives

Opinion

In May, I wrote a column in this space suggesting that through its successful lobbying to “zero out” funding for the Microbiological Data Program in the fiscal year 2013 budget, that big fruit and vegetable lobby had blood on its hands.

At the time, friends thought it was a little bit overboard–even for me.

Events that have transpired since, however, are more than enough to cause me to double down on this one.

When we last visited the subject, this little $5 million food safety program was thought to be in its final days as a compliant Congress had agreed with Obama’s USDA to end its funding.

Through some good enterprise reporting by our Helena Bottemiller and Gretchen Goetz, Food Safety News disclosed that when MDP went away, so would about 80 percent of all public fruit and vegetable testing.

Anyone who wants to track this issue will find about 400 news organizations jumped on those stories. Shortly thereafter, USDA announced it would keep funding MDP on its own through at least the end of the year.

What has that meant to food safety in the United States in just a few weeks? Let me tell you. Because of MDP testing we’ve seen:

July 29 – Cantaloupes recalled by North Carolina’s Burch Farms and Hannaford Supermarkets for the same pathogen (Listeria monocytogenes) that last year killed more people than any other foodborne disease in 100 years.

Aug. 9 – Cresco, IA-based Menno Beachy recalled Certified Organic Grape Tomatoes for Salmonella contamination, most sold to Midwest retail stores.

Aug. 10 – Fresh cilantro sold in bunches at these retail stores were recalled for more potential Salmonella contamination.

Aug. 11 – Burch expanded their July 29 recall to include all of this season’s cantaloupe and honeydew melons that were distributed in 18 states for possible Listeria contamination.

Wow! It looks to me like the little MDP Engine That Could is doing some great work and might well have saved some lives. And there’s a lot of the fruit and vegetable-growing season left.

But just because there is enough loose change laying around in USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) to keep MDP going through the end of the year does not mean this little program is going to be saved.

The contract and association lobbyists for the powerful fruit and vegetable industries still want it killed.

When I write the movie script for this one, I am going to have a scene where:

A fruit and vegetable lobbyist goes to Chicago and meets with someone from the political campaign underneath the elevated train (the L), where its so loud you cannot be heard or recorded.

I figure having the deal cut to kill the little program under a railroad truck would be about as powerful as having it killed on a railroad track.

(Please note: The script’s cover will of course say all scenes it depicts are fictional with any resemblance to what always goes on in Chicago being purely coincidental.)

We will have to get back to the movie later, but now we need some big hitters to step up and start saving MDP permanently. The assassins are still out there, trying to kill fruit and vegetable testing.

But we might have dodged a second summer with a deadly Listeria outbreak thanks to MDP.

So, its time for any politician who ever thinks of getting some political mileage out his or her support for food safety to step up.

Now is the time to do whatever is necessary to ensure MDP’s continued service. Those of us who enjoy fruits and vegetables just would like to have the security of knowing a few tests are being run every year.

It is also time for people in the fruit and vegetable industry to come forward. Do you really believe your leadership and their paid lobbyists are acting in your best interest on this one? Would you really prefer to wait for an outbreak with lot’s of illnesses and deaths than to take an occasional recall. Would that another summer of death of good for cantaloupe growers?

Since it began in 2001, MDP evolved from monitoring contamination rates for U.S. fruits and vegetables to a more prominent role in triggering recalls. It cannot be call duplicative because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does so few inspections.

MDP is effective and transparent, unlike FDA in this area. That’s why MDP needs long-term funding. While AMS has the mission of doing the “rah-rah” marketing for U.S. agriculture and while MDP is not part of that, together they make a good fit with the way state agriculture departments are structured.

Indeed, somebody at USDA was bright enough to keep this little program going for awhile.

Whoever that was knew allowing the “food safety President” to kill MDP was not smart. They knew somebody made a truly stupid deal. Now they should take the next step and get MDP’s funding for 2013 nailed down.

In the meantime, I just want to caution whoever that was to not accept any invitations to take a meeting under any elevated trains in Chicago.

© Food Safety News
  • John Symons

    What percentage of produce is inspected by MDP ?

  • A. Aydin

    There is a very simple solution to this funding problem. Animal rights organizations such as HSUS and PETA are well funded. They are against any animal protein production due to their concerns for animal welfar and they promote and support a vegetarian or Vegan life style. It would be money well spent to maintaine and expand the MDP program for their members and would give their organizations a more positive immage.

  • Jennifer Watson

    Great Story Dan! You hit the nail on the head.