Public testing for pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria on fresh produce will drop by more than 80 percent if a key U.S. Department of Agriculture testing program is eliminated, according to an analysis by Food Safety News.

The USDA’s Microbiological Data Program was zeroed out in the Obama administration’s 2013 budget request and Congress is not seeking funding for the $4.5 million program next year. It is rumored that MDP is set to close down at the end of this month, but the Agricultural Marketing Service, where MDP is housed, would not confirm the program’s status.

Elimination of the testing program has become a public health hot potato. Several media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, and the New York Times have weighed into the debate. The Times’ editorial board even called it “a tiny program that matters,” an unusually high profile appeal for an obscure program with a relatively small budget.

This “tiny” program was launched in 2001 simply to collect data about fresh produce contamination, but it now regularly sparks produce recalls when participating state labs find pathogens. Perhaps more importantly, the labs upload any positive test results to the Centers for Disease Control’s PulseNet, which helps public health officials link foodborne illness cases to food products. MDP is also the only federal program that tests for non-O157 E. coli strains like the one that caused the deadly, high profile sprout outbreak in Germany last year.

Both the Obama administration and the fresh produce industry have argued that AMS is the wrong agency to house the nation’s only robust microbiological surveillance program for produce because AMS is focused on marketing, not food safety. Some believe the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over the safety of produce, would be better equipped to screen produce for harmful pathogens.

FDA gave Food Safety News an overview of its surveillance testing from 2009 to 2012. The agency pulls, on average, 80 percent fewer fresh produce samples for testing than MDP. It is not clear whether FDA plans to, or has the resources to ramp up testing to fill the void that would be left by eliminating MDP testing. FDA did not respond to questions about whether the agency would ramp up testing next year.

The data graphic below compares FDA and MDP produce testing. The FDA numbers include samples collected at ports where fresh produce is imported. As much as 50 to 60 percent of produce consumed in the United States is imported, depending on the season. The numbers below do not include testing FDA may do in the event of an outbreak, which can include product testing from outbreak victims or environmental testing from food facilities.

To view specific testing numbers, hold your cursor over the images. For 2012, the FDA testing numbers are through June 15 and the MDP numbers are projected through the end of July.

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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, 2 E. coli O157:H7 recalls, and 5 Listeria recalls.

Of the pathogens the program identified during that time, 39 Salmonella isolates were matched to human illnesses — as were both E. coli O157:H7 and all 8 Listeria isolates.

FDA did not provide produce test results or the number of recalls initiated due to their test results.

The United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association, which represent the vast majority of the industry, have lobbied for ending MDP in part because they believe it is too slow to prevent illnesses.

“By the time they detect something and notify FDA the product has already been eaten. They’re not preventing anything. That produce is gone,” said David Gombas, the senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh in an interview with Food Safety News last year. United Fresh did not respond to requests for comment on MDP’s imminent shutdown.

Public health officials argue that the data program is valuable regardless of whether it catches contaminated product from reaching consumers — which it was not designed to do, but sometimes does — because the results shed light on an entire commodity’s food safety record.

“It’s not a preventative program,” says Kristi McCallum, the Microbiology Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “But this is the only program that does surveillance testing for produce.”

Take celery, for example. “Celery is pretty clean. But we wouldn’t be able to say that without the data,” says McCallum, who points out that the surveillance data is helpful for identifying trends and can eventually be used to design preventative policies.

The isolates can also help other states solve what McCallum calls “cold cases.” A few years ago, officials in Texas thanked Colorado’s lab for uploading Salmonella isolates into PulseNet that helped the state crack a dozen unsolved foodborne illness cases.

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and other food safety advocates say they just want robust produce testing regardless of which agency conducts the tests.

DeLauro wrote to the Office of Management and Budget last week urging the administration to consider shifting the testing responsibility to FDA, something Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested before a congressional panel earlier this year.

“It is unacceptable for this valuable, cost-effective program – and the only program dedicated to improving our understanding of the bacterial contamination of produce – to be eliminated,” wrote DeLauro.

“We agree that AMS is not an appropriate place for this testing, but they need to fund it at one of the agencies,” said David Plunkett, the senior staff attorney at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The benefits of this program far outweigh the cost. It helps tell us how the produce industry is doing and it could help FDA determine which commodities are higher risk.”

Colorado and other MDP-participating states have received no formal notice from USDA about the future of the program.

See recent Food Safety News coverage:

Lettuce Recall Prompts Call to Fund Microbiological Data Program

Tainted Spinach Detected by Program Budget Cuts Will Ax

The Fight Over the Microbiological Data Program