A “tiny” program at USDA, which does the lion’s share of public produce testing in the U.S., is on the chopping block.

Depending on who you ask, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP), which randomly tests produce for dangerous pathogens, is either an unnecessary, slow-moving program housed in the wrong agency, or a critical public health initiative that fills a big, alarming gap in domestic produce testing.

The debate over MDP, which falls under the Agricultural Marketing Service, intensified last week with the news that the Obama administration’s budget eliminates the $5 million program in Fiscal Year 2013.

Launched under President Bush’s 2001 Food Safety Initiative, MDP now tests about 15,000 samples of fruits and vegetables each year, far more than any other federal or state program. Public health officials pull samples of alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupe, cilantro, hot peppers, bagged lettuce and spinach and tomatoes to gather data on E. coli (STEC), E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens that can contaminate these products.

Samples are collected from produce distribution centers in 11 states, which, according to MDP, represent about 50 percent of the United States population. Any isolated pathogens are then sent for pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) testing and the resulting pattern is uploaded into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s PulseNet database so that it can be matched against human isolates or outbreak patterns.

In its budget request for FY 2013, the Obama administration justified cutting MDP, calling it a “lower-priority program because it is has a low impact and is not central to the core mission of AMS, which is to facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products.”

On Monday, The New York Times ran an editorial boosting the obscure program into the limelight. In “A Tiny Program That Matters,” the editors call the proposed cut “an alarming setback in the fight to keep the food supply safe.”

“Keeping food safe requires consistent monitoring by the federal government,” read the editorial. “Ending this small program would harm those efforts.”

The produce industry has long argued that MDP is ineffective and does nothing for food safety.

“By the time they detect something and notify FDA the product has already been eaten,” said David Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh, in an interview with Food Safety News last summer, adding that it could be several weeks before a recall is initiated after a positive test. “They’re not preventing anything. That produce is gone.”

United Fresh, which represents the majority of the produce industry, has lobbied for eliminating the program, arguing that the MDP has strayed from its original mission, data collection, to regulatory and enforcement activities that are slow and unnecessary.

“Growers, processors are not notified at the time samples are taken. Most results are well past shelf-life,” read the minutes of a United Fresh Food Safety & Technology Council meeting in January 2011. “Does a single sample positive make any sense to cause a recall without reported illnesses? We do not believe this program is adding to public safety. There must be other alternatives.”

Tiny Program, Broad Impact 

According a report in the Chicago Tribune, which first flagged that the program was on the chopping block last summer, MDP tests have triggered at least 19 produce recalls in the past two years.

In the past couple of months, for example, MDP tests conducted by the Washington State Department of Agriculture sparked recalls of bagged spinach and jalapeno and serrano chili peppers, both for Salmonella.

Washington state’s capacity for produce testing is a prime example of the impact MDP can have on the ground. In 2010, the WSDA’s microbiology laboratory received $400,000 to implement produce testing for MDP, resources that state officials say also help boost local food safety oversight.

“It is unlikely that we would be able to continue the activity using existing state resources,” said Kirk Robinson, Assistant Director at the Food Safety and Consumer Services Division, in July, adding that the lab would likely have to cut staff that are currently funded by the program. “This loss of staff could impact the timelines of work in response to foodborne illnesses outbreaks.”

Robinson noted that the MDP funding helps WSDA improve testing infrastructure and laboratory equipment.

“Besides testing MDP samples, this equipment has been utilized for testing food and dairy products for regulatory purposes, and has successfully identified human pathogens in higher-risk foods on several occasions in the last few years,” he said.

One state official estimated there is generally about a week of lag time between when a produce sample is collected from a distribution facility and when FDA might recall product that is confirmed positive.

According to an MDP document obtained by Food Safety News, between 2002 to 2011, MDP-participating laboratories analyzed approximately 121,000 fresh fruit and vegetable samples.

During this same time period, numerous pathogens were isolated from the produce samples tested by MDP:  (128) Salmonella, (42) non-O157 ETEC, (97) non-O157 STEC, (2) E. coli O157:H7, and (4) Listeria monocytogenes, and throughout the decade of testing, MDP significantly improved the turnaround time on samples.

“Constantly refining procedures and adding technologies such as automated DNA extraction and real-time PCR has allowed MDP laboratories to reduce the time it takes from sample receipt to pathogen isolation from 14 days to as little as 5 days,” according to the document, which outlined the program’s accomplishments.

According to MDP, the program provides close to 90 percent of all available bacterial pathogen data for fruit and vegetables and is a “significant contributor” to CDC’s PulseNet Database.

Vilsack in the Hot Seat

Last Friday, the debate over zeroing out MDP came to a head at a four-hour agriculture appropriations hearing, during which U.S Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) grilled Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack over the cut.

“I think it’s a critical program, I’ve always believed that, I’ve always advocated for it,” said DeLauro, who pressed Vilsack to defend USDA’s decision.

“It’s a question of where it’s appropriately funded,” said Vilsack. “We don’t think it’s consistent with the mission of [the Agricultural Marketing Service]. That’s the question. As we take a look at our budget, we’ve got to take a look at our core competencies and what is directly linked to our mission.”

Citing the “disgrace” of the proposed food safety budget for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, DeLauro continued to press Vilsack on the issue during two rounds of questioning. She said she believes the administration’s budget showed their focus on food safety was “questionable.”

DeLauro pointed out that, in the scheme of things, the MDP’s budget is “not a lot of money” — it “winds up being budget dust.” The congresswoman also lambasted the idea that state and local governments pick up the slack on produce testing.

“Talk about resources! Go to any state effort. There are no resources there,” she said. “We’re not talking billions of dollars – like the numbers that get thrown around this institution for things that don’t have the same kind of ability to save lives. Is this a program that’s going to fall through the cracks and no one is going to pick it up?”

“I wish we would figure out how to take programs that work and provide a real difference and say that that’s worth saving.”

Vilsack responded saying he’d like to see FDA’s budget increase by $4 million to absorb the program, but the austere fiscal situation means making tough choices. DeLauro promised to give USDA some suggestions for alternative cuts because, she said: “I am telling you, it’s not going to happen at FDA.”

“I will work with you. I will go through your budget. I will find a place where we can get $4.3 million to potentially save lives,” added DeLauro. “That’s what this piece does.”