USDA budget: Exports in, pathogen testing out

02/13/2012 03:43:00 PM
Tom Karst

Export promotion is in, but testing produce for pathogens is out, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Unveiling a lean budget that sees cuts in traditional farm programs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Feb. 13 that the Obama administration was committed to full $200 million funding of the Market Access Program for fiscal year 2013.

“Every dollar invested (in export promotion) generates $35 in trade activity,” Vilsack said in support of the program in a Feb. 13 teleconference.

In 2010 and 2011, the Obama administration targeted the USDA’s MAP for a 20% reduction.

Kam Quarles, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based McDermott Will & Emery law firm, said the export-oriented Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops was also fully funded at $9 million in the White House budget.

Vilsack said the USDA budget also invests in research and development.

“The budget makes a 23% increase in funding for our premier competitive grants program to support the most worthy projects and continues support for in-house research and the land grant universities,” he said in a news release.

Quarles said the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program was left intact at $55 million in the White House budget request.

Vilsack also said the budget provides full funding for expected requirements for the USDA’s nutrition assistance programs. In particular, it includes funding to cover an increase in the Women, Infants and Children fruit and vegetable vouchers for children from the current $8 to $10, as recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

Quarles said USDA’s Microbiological Data Program was targeted for elimination in the White House budget.

That program, a federal-state effort to collect samples and report on foodborne pathogens on raw agricultural commodities, had been controversial with produce advocates since its introduction in 2002. Critics said the USDA’s sampling program was not reliable or fast enough to be the basis of produce recalls and that the program duplicated Food and Drug Administration sampling work for pathogens.

In a document identifying the budget’s “Cuts, Consolidations and Savings,” the Office of Management and Budget revealed the fiscal 2013 budget eliminated $5 million for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service program. The USDA AMS Pesticide Reporting Program was also eliminated, saving $2 million.

In total, the White House’s proposed 2013 budget for the USDA provides $23 billion in discretionary funds, a decrease of 3% from 2012. The budget seeks to reduce the deficit by $32 billion over 10 years by eliminating direct farm payments, decreasing subsidies to crop insurance companies and better targeting conservation funding for high-priority areas.



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Bonnie    
Mid Michigan  |  February, 14, 2012 at 08:26 AM

The elimination of the USDA Microbiological Data Program is very sad and equally dangerous. This program detects pathogens on vegetable commodities such as lettuce, sprouts and cantaloupe. It is tremendously reliable and the turnaround time is definitely adequate to allow for "tainted" product to be removed from stores and consumer households. The Food and Drug Administration has no programs that even come close to testing the amount of product currently tested through the vital Microbiological Data Program. It is such a travesty that critics and the industry have helped to eliminate a program that was no doubt savings lives.

Charlie    
California  |  February, 14, 2012 at 10:47 AM

The USDA MDP was never intended to work as a food safety tool. The legal environment has changed greatly since the inception of MDP and its unintended consequences were never anticipated. MDP was originally funded to do two things: establish a baseline norm for background microbiota, that it, find out what normal microorganisms exist on fresh produce; and train state labs to handle/work with fresh produce in a laboratory setting so that in the case of a bioterrorism event, they would be prepared. The poultry industry completed their microbiological survey in 12 months. MDP is a decade old. If they have not determined a microbiological norm by now, they probably never will and the state labs certainly must be ready by now. MDP has resulted in numerous recalls, NONE of which has ever been linked to a single foodborne illness. This is documented in spite of claims like the previous one. Additionally, the testing is usually done in the retail sector (distribution centers) and when there is positive test result, changes in the law since the inception of MDP require FDA to recall whichever lot the product comes from even though the source of the adulteration may not be known or linked to the producer. There are better ways in place of protecting the food supply than this outdated program which was never intended to protect the food supply and which in reality has not. USDA bureaucracy has bloated the program which was originally intended to be temporary, but over the years many at USDA have made careers from it. I am all for programs that will keep our food supply safer but the MDP program wastes food safety dollars on a program that not only does not work but in actuality is counterproductive. One positive thing that can be said about MDP however is that after its first year or two, the USDA was the perfect government agency to oversee the project. After all, they regulate pork.

Wilhelm    
Pheonix AZ  |  February, 16, 2012 at 06:01 AM

I looked at the original congressional language when the microbiological data program was created. I was toenumerate generic e. coli, coliforms, and test for salmonella and e coli O157:H7. Teaching state programs was not one of the goals. Let me ask, if you find salmonella or E coli O157:H7, as a scientist, what are you to do? ignore it? Due diligence says to report it to the responsible regulatory agency. IF they find sufficient evidence to do a recall, so be it. What is suggested by ignoring a positive detection would be outrageous and I think the program would be in deep trouble for spending tax payer funds and not reporting to regulatory agencies a positive finding. The growers should embrace this program not try to cut it.

Bonnie    
michigan  |  February, 16, 2012 at 09:12 AM

I just can't understand why more American consumers are not outraged by this travesty. Their food safety net just took a huge hit!!!!!!

Jennifer    
California  |  February, 22, 2012 at 03:03 PM

I have to agree with Charlie. In my experience, the USDA sampling program has been slow with results. Typically they notify a company of a positive finding long after the product has been consumed. I can't see how this protects consumers.

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