Sign Petition to Save the Program. President Obama, you probably do not remember my three daughters: Morgan, Olivia and Sydney, hanging out with Sasha and Malia and Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers backstage before one of the inaugural parties, but $50,000 out of my pocket does. As you might remember, I went all in for your 2008 campaign, and judging by the calls and emails that I get on a daily basis from your campaign, you want me to do it again. Within a few months of taking office, you came face to face with what I have seen for decades – another multi-state foodborne illness outbreak. The now infamous Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella tragedy sickened several hundred throughout the United States and killed nine. I thought you got it when you were quoted as saying: “That’s what Sasha eats for lunch probably three times a week. And you know, I don’t wanna have to worry about whether she’s gonna get sick as a consequence to having her lunch.” True, that outbreak – and several others in proceeding years – prompted Congressional action on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) – that you very, very quietly signed into law.  However, the law still remains unfunded and many of the food safety rules remain hidden away in the your White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). And, now because of industry pressure, your administration wants to kill the $4.5M budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP).  Ironically, to this long-time democratic supporter, the program was launched under President Bush’s 2001 Food Safety Initiative, and until the end of July tested about 15,000 samples of fruits and vegetables each year, far more than any other federal or state program. Here is how MDP works: Public health officials pull samples of tomatoes (cherry, round, roma), cantaloupe, lettuce (leaf, romaine, cut, and pre-washed), celery, parsley, cilantro, spinach (bunched and bagged and pre-washed), hot peppers, sprouts (alfalfa and clover), onions (bulb and green), and yes, even Sasha’s peanut butter, and test for pathogens that can kill your kids and mine. The samples are collected from distribution centers in 11 states that represent about 50 percent of the United States population. Any isolated pathogens are sent for pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) testing and the resulting genetic pattern is uploaded to the Centers for Disease Control PulseNet database so that it can be matched against human isolates or outbreak patterns. MDP also tests all isolates for antimicrobial resistance and contributes data to the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring (NARMS) database. From 2009 to 2012, MDP found Salmonella 100 times, E. coli O157:H7 twice and Listeria monocytogenes 8 times. Over the same time period, the program sparked 23 Salmonella recalls, two E. coli O157:H7 recalls and five Listeria recalls.  Of the pathogens the program identified during that time, 39 Salmonella isolates were matched to human illnesses – as were the two E. coli O157:H7 and all eight Listeria isolates. In your budget request for FY 2013, your 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 USDA, which is to facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products.” Despite what industry lobbyists say to Congress and your Administration behind closed doors, I beg to differ.  Here are just a few reasons to fully fund the MDP:

– MDP is the only robust sampling program we have. That surveillance data is irreplaceable and will be important for moving forward with FSMA produce safety rule. Having commodity-specific surveillance data can be used by growers to tailor preventative practices. – MDP does sometimes spark recalls before their sell by or use by dates, which allows retailers to pull potentially contaminated product from shelves before consumers eat it. The $4.5 million program would be more than worth it even if it only prevented one case of E. coli O157:H7 caused acute kidney failure – hemolytic uremic syndrome – in a child. – MDP has a sampling, testing, and reporting infrastructure in place and can rapidly deploy and begin sampling and testing for outbreak related commodities within a week.  It gives health officials rapid response capability. Rapid is good for consumers and good for the industry. The faster we know what is causing an outbreak, the faster we can alert consumers and the faster the impact can be minimized to industry.

As many states cut their public health budgets, MDP gives states resources to help build better microbiological labs. When the program was first launched in 2001, many labs were using antiquated methods. MDP introduced labs to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and is currently using real time PCR. With the help of USDA funding, MDP labs are state-of-the-art and each is ISO 17025 accredited. By continually sampling throughout the year, MDP staffs are now proficient at testing and isolating pathogens. This is more art than science and is a skill that is developed, not acquired. Given how fast microbiology is evolving, the state labs will not be able to afford to keep up with instrumentation and they will likely be back in the dark ages within a few short years. Though there has been talk about moving produce testing to FDA (after it has been killed), your administration argues that the program is being cut because it does not belong at USDA. While I agree that the program is a better fit under FDA’s mission, MDP actually saves taxpayers money by being within USDA because it shares resources, staff, and infrastructure with its sister program, the Pesticide Data Program (PDP). So, President Obama, father to father, democrat to democrat, do the right thing and fund MDP.  It will be good for your kids and mine, and it will not make me wish I had gone all in for Bush.

  • I fear the day when my twin grand-daughters, who do everything together, are sickened or killed because they did what Grandpa suggested and ate their vegetables.

  • Wynann Brownell

    I totally agree and I hope this went to the President.

  • husna

    I love your article on keeping funding for MDP, however, the testing involves random sampling similar to how food companies tests random food samples. What about the other lots that don’t undergo testing? How would we protect the children from consuming those fruits and vegetables that have not been tested at all?
    Kids eat lunch 5 times a week at schools cafeteria. Don’t you think that funding should instead focus on public health agencies/MDP pulling out random food samples from the cafeteria’s and check for pathogenic bacteria? I bet they will find a lot more there!

  • Gertrude “Trudy”

    You may not know, and I wouldn’t, either, if I didn’t have a friend working for USDA, that USDA gets in trouble for spending money on its own independent testing, and FDA is Congress’ fair-haired boy for NOT spending tax dollars on testing, just taking the applicant’s word for it on the promise of full testing later. FDA is all about money–not concern for human health. But wait, there’s more…the US is going broke. We borrowed more money from China than we can repay. Now China did its usual thing when it wants to cut out one party, and called a meeting to which the US was not invited. The US dollar is in danger of losing its status as the world’s currency. All this talk about a kid’s peanut butter lunch is just window dressing. Where the dollar matters, not much else does. If FDA gets hold of real food–produce, peanuts, anything directly edible–we will see illness outbreaks like never before–because the FDA saves the government so much money by doing no testing. So if you wonder why FDA is likely to be put in charge of a fresh-food testing program, you have the answer. Testing costs the government, and FDA legally doesn’t have to test a darn thing.

  • lin sasman

    thanks for both the editorial and the link to a petition to send to Obama which
    is an effective action to take

  • Richard Webman

    I am pleased that you had a fun time at the inaugural parties, but you got access to his kids. We were all expecting change and excited that he was acting to sign bills into action like the egg safety rule. It was great that he ran with it after it was hungup in the FDA for some 13 years.
    As you know right after he sign the egg safety rule there was a major outbreak. Unfortunately this was months before the rule took effect.
    Washington is full of industry insiders with $50,000 to play the other side of the industry.
    Since we last spoke, my son has passed his 1L to now be a 2L at Boston University.
    Perhaps his interest in Healthcare law will save the inocents that the president decided to discard for the campaign funds to get re elected.
    What I am interested in is whether he represents the sick as you do, the industry, or the doctors.
    Time will tell, but my guess is that he will go where the money is!
    Your friend,
    Richard in Boston