Back in the day, before the fresh fruit and produce industry managed to kill it, the Microbiological Data Program (MDP) came under fire from growers for not providing timely results, sometimes resulting in recalls of fruit that consumers had already eaten. That was 18 months ago and MDP — the joint venture of about 10 state labs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — dried up Dec. 31, 2012, when Congress withheld funding for the program, which cost only about $5 million a year. MDP did about 80 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetable testing in the U.S. and has not been replaced. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did the remaining 20 percent of the fruit tests. FDA Fresh Fruit and Produce Testing, 2009-13
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FDA fruit tests, including both domestically grown and imported produce, amount to only a tiny slice of the fruit and vegetables we consume. And the summer’s largest fruit recall to date illustrates how fresh produce is still being consumed ahead of the tests results — in those few instances where testing exists. While MDP is gone, other parties doing independent testing on fresh fruits and vegetables are at least some foreign importers. In this case, American consumers can send their thank-you notes to the Aussies. An Australian importer on July 10 confirmed trace amounts of Listeria in fruit from California’s Wawona Packing Co. It would take nine more days — most taken up waiting for additional laboratory testing — before the Cutler, CA, company opted to order the recall for fruit packed between June 1 and July 12. Ironically, the Aussie importer’s test of just three peaches found each with traces of Listeria that are within the tolerance levels for both Australia and New Zealand. But once Wawona learned of the results, it had another problem: FDA has a zero-tolerance policy for Listeria. So the company hired a private laboratory to take additional samples, both inside its packing facility and from its fruit. Wawona shut down packing operations July 12 while it waited for the lab results to be returned. During the next five days, until July 17 when the lab returned Listeria-positive test results from two peaches and one nectarine, the packing company conducted additional cleaning and sanitation for all packing equipment and facilities. The lab did not quantify the Listeria levels on the fruit that tested positive, so Wawona asked for further testing, which came back negative. Also, none of the environmental samples from equipment and inside the packinghouse were positive. Wawona, however, went ahead with the recall because it said it felt compelled to do so by FDA’s zero-tolerance policy. The company continues to insist that it believes the actual risk to public health from the recalled fruit is “very low.” And 72 hours after the initial recall, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said there were no Listeria cases associated with the Wawona fruit recall. June and early July California-grown fruit was likely mostly consumed before the recall was announced due to testing lagging behind the fast delivery the fresh products require. In that sense, the Aussie importer was no better than MDP in getting ahead of the fruit crop. However, it’s way too early to blow the all-clear horn because Listeria, a stubborn pathogen that withstands both heat and cold, also has a long incubation period. It can take up to 70 days after infection to the onset of illness. That means fruit consumed in June can make someone sick in September.