During a monthly conference call with state agriculture departments that collect samples for the program, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said sample collections were to stop on Nov. 9, said Jim Brownlee, director of public affairs for the Agricultural Marketing Service.
“Due to budget cuts by Congress, USDA funding for the program will end Dec. 31,” Brownlee said, explaining that testing will be completed for samples currently on hand.
Many in the fresh produce industry have questioned the value of the program, saying it prompted unnecessary recalls because test results from samples collected at distribution centers were often not reported until product use-by dates had passed.
Ray Gilmer, vice president of the United Fresh Produce Association in Washington D.C., said the organization thought the USDA was the wrong agency to handle such a program. He said United Fresh generally supports the Food and Drug Administration’s public health mission and that FDA would be more appropriate for such work.
It is unclear whether the MDP sampling ever returned positive test results related to actuall illnesses or outbreaks.
“The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or FDA could answer that question definitively,” Brownlee said. “The (MDP) simply shares the data collection when testing shows pathogens.”
The Packer asked CDC officials on Nov. 13 whether the MDP had ever returned positive results linked to actual illnesses or outbreaks. As of Nov. 15 the agency had not responded to the question.
The Obama administration and committees in the U.S. House and Senate decided earlier this year to kill funding for the testing program. The House Appropriations Committee reported the cut would save the Agricultural Marketing Service $4.4 million annually.
USDA initiated the MDP in 2001 to gather data about certain foodborne pathogens on certain fresh fruits and vegetables. Federal officials have repeatedly said the program was never intended to protect the public from foodborne illnesses.
Gilmer said some recalls provide good examples of why United Fresh officials believe such a program would be better administered by the FDA. He cited a recent Fresh Express recall of expired product as an example of how the MDP test results took longer to make their way through the federal system than it took for the suspect food to make it through — and out of — the supply chain.