(UPDATED COVERAGE, Nov. 15) The Microbiological Data Program is in shutdown mode after 11 years of gathering facts about foodborne pathogens.

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.

USDA kills pathogen testing program“We think FDA is best equipped to administer these kinds of programs,” Gilmer said Nov. 12. “We generally support funding for FDA’s public health mission.”

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.

Annual reports on the MDP tests and results are available on the USDA’s AMS website.

The most recent report with full-year statistics is for 2009 when the program tested cantaloupe, cilantro, green onions, hot peppers, lettuce, spinach, sprouts and tomatoes for presence of salmonella and pathogenic E. coli. The AMS reports about 17,000 samples were collected from more than 600 food distribution sites in the continental U.S. in 2009. Samples included domestic, imported, conventional and organic produce.

The 2009 sampling took place in California, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. The testing program confirmed a total of 32 positive salmonella isolates and 24 positive E. coli isolates for the entire year.

For 2012, the commodities on the MDP testing list were: alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupe, cilantro, hot peppers,

bagged lettuce, bagged spinach and tomatoes, including cherry, grape and roma/plum varities. According to the AMS website, the normal monthly sampling rate was 64 site samples per commodity. Three individual unit samples of each commodity tested were collected.