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