On the heels of Dole’s announcement that the company is recalling nearly 800 bags of lettuce after Salmonella was detected by state health officials conducting random sampling in New York state, U.S. PIRG (the federation of State Public Interest Research Groups) is chastising a plan to cut the nation’s largest produce testing program.

lettuce-crate-350.jpg“The Agriculture Department’s tiny $5 million Microbiological Data Program screens high-risk fresh produce throughout the year for bacteria including Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria,” explained Nasima Hossain, a U.S. PIRG public health advocate in a statement Monday.

The “tiny” program found the Salmonella positive that sparked the current Dole recall.  

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget eliminates MDP, which operates under the Agriculture Marketing Service and conducts around 15,000 random tests for pathogens in fresh fruit and vegetable samples.

“Cutting this program will leave public health officials without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly foodborne illnesses in fresh produce leaving inspections in the hands of produce producers. Is this really conducive to keeping consumers safe?” said Hossain. “In view of the accelerated increase in foodborne illnesses linked to fresh produce, and this latest recall of bagged lettuce, we think the USDA should reconsider cutting this program which is thoughtless and will leave the public increasingly in more danger.”

Launched under President Bush’s 2001 Food Safety Initiative, MDP currently does far more produce testing 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 (including New York), 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 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 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.”

The produce industry has been critical of MDP and lobbied for its elimination. The industry argues that the program is too slow to protect public health and has veered from its original intention and turned into a regulatory program.

The testing program has been hotly debated — and even got a shout out in a New York Times editorial titled, “A Tiny Program That Matters” — but it appears the program is still slated for elimination in FY 2013.