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Letter From The Editor: A Year for Fruit & Vegetable Dangers

Opinion

It was not perfect and it was not everywhere, but the U.S. government did, prior to this year, have a trip wire set up that might well have prevented that rare strain of hepatitis A from the Middle East and North Africa and that nasty cyclospora parasite from south of the border from getting into the United States.

The official name of that trip wire was the Microbiological Data Program (MDP), a federally funded joint project of USDA and about a dozen state agricultural labs. As Food Safety News reported at about this time last year, MDP was responsible for about 80 percent of the fresh produce testing being conducted in the U.S. at the time.

The New York Times editorial writers probably said it best when they called MDP “a tiny program that matters.” Also at about this time last year, we were writing about MDP’s contribution in heading off another deadly Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe. But the fresh produce lobby long wanted MDP killed, and at last it succeeded. The Obama White House, USDA and all those feed-at-trough farm committees in Congress played supporting roles.

In all likelihood, there is less fresh produce testing going on this year than at anytime in a decade. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might be trying to pick up some of the slack left by the loss of MDP, but it is not capable of picking up all of it.

The fresh produce lobby did not like all those state labs at work because they were too connected to the growing and importing  seasons. The fresh produce industry did not like it when positive test results were sent by the states to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s disease surveillance network PulseNet. They did not like having those tests connected to produce consumers had not yet eaten and they for sure did not like those recalls.

So they killed it.

This means this is a very dangerous produce season for consumers. We should not be surprised that at least 418 people have contracted cyclospora infections from Mexican lettuce and 158 were sickened with a rare strain of hepatitis A. These are the sick folks whose summer is ruined all for the want of a trip wire warning.

As I said at the beginning, MDP did not catch all the bugs during its existence. The Turkish pomegranate seeds thought to be the source of the hepatitis A virus in the frozen berry mixes weren’t fresh produce and probably would have sickened consumers unless MDP was expanded to include frozen fruits and vegetables. But the Mexican salad makings might have been a different story.  With only 1 to 2 percent of all imported food getting inspected by FDA, having MDP to check on surges of fresh produce coming across our border would be a great use of the trip wire theory.

With the produce rule under the new Food Safety and Modernization Act, FDA is hard at work to make fresh fruits and vegetables safer in the future. It just would be nice if in there somewhere was a little program that would move and test fresh produce at times and locations that made some sense.

For the remainder of this summer, be careful with those fruits and vegetables. Be very careful.

© Food Safety News
  • http://burningbird.net Shelley Powers

    Agree, and agree.

  • Stephanie Mullany

    It seems that if one community-minded lobbyist would designate a fraction of funds spent influencing legislation for a particular gain [and if more would do the same], we could greatly reduce, if not prevent, severe illness and deaths from food contamination. The current state of
    affairs is a national shame.

  • Oginikwe

    Great editorial, Mr. Flynn!

    I take back everything bad I thought about you. Lol.

  • Mike_Mychajlonka_PhD

    I have no desire to demonize any industry. Certainly, perceptions of reality will differ. Of course, any business is concerned about costs and their bottom line. In food safety, we see a lot of numbers and these are all useful. However, something at least I have only rarely seen are estimates of the actual costs of a recall. How much (and for how long) must be paid to a public relations firm for them to issue their cheerful pieces of non-information. We know something of the settlements announced after trials but we know a good deal less of reimbursements made under conditions of non-disclosure. May I suggest that Food Safety News gather such estimates for some of the better known outbreaks. It may help us all be more realistic about testing.

  • Produce Gal

    However, you are leaving out one fundamental point – the MDP would NOT have caught either of your scenarios because because the MDP did not test for Hep A or parasites. They tested for E.coli, Salmonella and sometimes Listeria.

  • Carlo Silvestr

    Thank you, Dan. Here we have yet another devastating effect of Big Ag shoving their wishes down the throats of their toadies and their toadies doing nothing about it as long as the money keeps flowing their way.

  • Aldo

    MDP work has never been responsible for a recall; its collection and testing regime was not time-sensitive enough. It was a research activity, not a screening or enforcement activity The data summaries for their collection and analysis activities were released a year after the work was done. In their own words, “…The data generated from MDP are available to Federal and State Public Health agencies and industry for food safety decision-making purposes, risk modeling, and trend analyses. The information can also be used to establish benchmarks by which to evaluate the efficacy of good agricultural and manufacturing practices to reduce or eliminate harmful foodborne microorganisms and thus improve the quality and safety of the fresh produce supply.”

    Your introductory paragrapn’s central premise is misinformed.

    Effective contemporaneous screening was and is the responsibility of the FDA, which does laboratory testing on less than one-half of 1 percent of imports. The risk modeling done by MDP was useful but not critical. The FDA’s iRISK program has performed fairly well as a predictive modeling tool.

    I enjoyed the general editorial, but editorial bias is pretty evident. Can you provide some factual examples of the fresh produce lobby killing the funding? Which companies, who they influenced, when it happened and in what venues? I would like to get past the ‘suspicion’ stage. Everyone has a voice before the subcommittees, the lobbyists as well as the USDA. Did the USDA support continuing the MDP or did they sacrifice it as a hard choice in developing their budget? Small programs go first in those scenarios, generally.

  • dflynn

    MDP testing changed over time and sometimes by state. And it did prompt recalls. I call your attention to:

    http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/08/cilantro-the-latest-in-series-of-mdp-prompted-recalls/#.UgMFRBbgJUQ