USDA kills pathogen testing program

11/12/2012 04:35:00 PM
Coral Beach

USDA(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.

Ray GilmerGilmer“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.



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Wilhelm    
Pheonix AZ  |  November, 12, 2012 at 07:03 PM

Its a sad day. this little program was reported to test 80% of all the fresh produce tested by government agencies. That leaves FDA with less than 20% yet United Fresh wants testing in FDA? Is this because they don't want but very few samples tested? Afraid of what is found? FDA paid a lobbying firm to convince congressmen and senators not to support funding for MDP so no wonder the didn't put it in the budget. I repeat, its a sad day when industry can overide science and public policy and public good to serve thier own interest. Shame on United Fresh! The new empire of Evil.

Jennifer    
Salinas  |  November, 13, 2012 at 10:15 AM

This was not a good programm. Glad to see it gone. This program never protected public health when the sample results took so long to be confirmed. Companies affected were notified long after the product had been consumed. Those that want to see this type of program continue need to support a program that will actually protect consumers, and this was not it.

Concerned Citizen    
Michigan  |  November, 13, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Yes, it truly is a very sad day. Just goes to prove the power of lobbying and that anyone can be bought for the right price. The entire country will be losing a valuable program at a time when vegetable commodity pathogen contaminations are increasing. Shy away from cilantro, sprouts and spinach!!!!!

Concerned Citizen    
Michigan  |  November, 13, 2012 at 10:18 AM

Obviously, you know nothing about this program. It truly does provide for recalls while the product is still available to the consumer. Product testing does take time so that everything can be confirmed but it absolutely protects the public. Do you lobby for United Fresh?

goods    
Michigan  |  November, 13, 2012 at 10:41 AM

It is ashame that you have chosen to comment without first-hand knowledge of how this program worked. Having worked directly with the program, it took less than a week from the date of colleciton to confirming a positive pathogen. The last three months have confirmed positives for both pathogenic E. coli and Salmonella. The industry is foolish enough to believe that stopping these recalls will save them money; even at the expense of people's lives. It is obviously an industry that is willing to roll the dice on people for the sake of making more profit. Let the lawsuits begin for those who are sickened or die.

Jennifer    
November, 13, 2012 at 10:49 AM

My comment is based on experience with this program. I was involved in a recall that was initiated by this testing. We were notified 10 days after the samples were pulled. During that time the product was in commerce and being consumed. By the time we recalled, the product was long gone. I believe this type of testing would be more effective before product is shipped and in commerce. The current program is slow and inefficient. Shame on you who jump to conclusions and make assumptions.

Ben    
USA  |  November, 13, 2012 at 12:50 PM

the State Inspectors are doing food and feed testing and they need some extra money, the Food Lawyers and Consumer Protection Agencies have a good change to donate money to the States to make sure we don't get contaminated food on our tables.The whole program was 4 Million, makes 80K for a State. Maybe the Government stopped the federal testing, because FSMA requires everybody to test the food before they put it into the supply chain. Why to test if they companies did their job? Not everyone is truthful, but If somebody gets caught in the future, putting unsafe or unsanitary food or feed into the market, it will not be fun for them anymore with all the new laws and regulations.

Charlie    
California  |  November, 13, 2012 at 12:52 PM

The USDA MDP program was never designed to be used as it is now. I DO have firsthand knowledge of the program. MDP was primarily designed to provide data on microbial presence in order to establish a microbial baseline to assess the risks of contamination, if any, in the domestic food supply. The data is used to establish "benchmarks" by which to evaluate the efficacy of procedures to reduce or eliminate harmful foodborne microorganisms. Unfortunately, once this benchmark was achieved, MDP continued under the pretenses of being a food safety watchdog. It was never designed to work in this capacity. Moreover, it has been ineffective at prevention. Since the samples are taken from retail distribution centers and sometimes from retail stores themselves, the public will have already consumed any contaminated product. Sampling produce so far up the supply chain also means that the product is well out of the control of growers when sampled but when positive test results have been found, this has led to recalls that go all the way back to the farm even though the farm may not have been at fault. This has resulted in millions lost through a process that is not scientifically validated and is patently unfair. In spite of the sensationalism of “goods”, this program has not been successful at saving lives. He also would have us believe that this is about profits but it is not. It is about doing away with a program that doesn’t work. Besides, the FDA is charged with regulating the produce industry, not the USDA.

goods    
Michigan  |  November, 13, 2012 at 02:41 PM

The program was initially started with the intent as a monitoring program. However, it became a problem when positive results were obtained. Anyone with a conscience and not a profit intent has to realize that you cannot ignore positive sample resutls that affect human health. The samples that were obtained were ALWAYS (that means 100%) obtained from a warehouse and not the retail outlet to preclude testing produce that may have been contaminated down the food chain distribution line. Also, when product is found to be contaminated, the point is not the origin but protecting human health. The problem may not be with the grower. The point is still to protect the consumer. So it may take 10 days to get the results, there is still product in people's refrigerators. We are supposed to just ignore the problem because it hurts industry and their profits and it took 10 days to get the results even though consumers are still consuming the product or the program was not meant to be reportable. All those are reasons to protect the industry and not the consumer. The industry motive is profit. The program's motive was protecting human lives. FDA does not have a routine monitoring program. That is why they were using the USDA program. It is obvious that those opposed to the program sleep at night with their rationalizations for opposing the program when their only motive is profit. If it saves even one life, it is a small price to pay. Now, the survivors and their attorneys will be the ones regulating the industry.

Concerned Citizen    
Michigan  |  November, 13, 2012 at 03:08 PM

Sorry Charlie but Goods hit the nail directly on the head! GO GOODS and consumer beware. Your health and welfare has been auctioned away to the highest bidder (industry in this case) and you will certainly pay the price in the future.

Charlie    
California  |  November, 14, 2012 at 01:02 PM

MDP was never intended or designed to be a safety. We don’t have to argue, check it out yourself from the USDA: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?more=G.OptionalText2&template=TemplateG&topNav=&leftNav=ScienceandLaboratories&page=MDPProgramOverview&description=MDP+Program+Overview&acct=microbiodataprg Samples are NOT always taken from a retail distribution warehouse either. They are also taken from wholesale terminal markets which are open to the public and are as vulnerable as a retail store if not more. If you don’t believe me, check out: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3004399 Positive test results are always a real concern. ALWAYS. The trouble is that the tests cannot determine where a contamination event occurred. Every retail and foodservice buyer checks the product that they receive before accepting it and the sanitary/hygienic conditions in which produce is handled is out of the control of the farmer. Produce that has passed through terminal markets are exposed even more. Yet, when a positive test result occurs, a recall is demanded all the way back to the farm even though the farm may not have been the cause. It’s not just the lost product either. The ancillary costs of a recall are staggering. If we use your logic to protect the public at all costs, then we would recall every car on the road that has been in an accident with injuries. Your claim that MDP is safeguarding the public is not accurate either. In 2008, MDP tested 10,330 samples; 2007 – 5,279 samples; 2006 – 7,646 samples. Put into proper context, there are over a billion servings of fresh produce consumed in the US every day. By any statistical measure, this is no safety net.

Charlie    
California  |  November, 14, 2012 at 01:08 PM

I actually applaud your intentions, goods. I am on the same side. I want to see the safest food supply that we can have. We need to rely on the best science available coupled with industry practices to match and oversight by an effective government mechanism to ensure that it is working. Unfortunately, MDP is not that mechanism. Sorry Concerned Citizen but you should learn to think for yourself instead of just regurgitating platitudes about a subject that you clearly know nothing about.

Lisa    
PA  |  November, 15, 2012 at 07:20 AM

What would industry have this program do once they find a pathogen? Ignor it? Keep the data quiet and report at the end of the year? Can you imagine the uproar from congress and the public if that were to actually happen? They would be derelict in their duties. Good science dictates that if you find something, you report it. The US Geological Survey does this all the time when they test water. The public utilities don't try to shut them down. Its called being responsible. May I remind you that it is FDA who determines whether there is sufficient evidence to mandate a recall. If a recall, then you have to go all the way back to the farm and go from there, where did contamination occure-thats the whole idea of a recall, find out where and get the implicated product out of the lines of trade. From what I see, MDP identifies a problem, FDA takes it from there. Where is the problem here? It happens with other industries, what makes produce so special?

George    
FL  |  November, 27, 2012 at 12:20 PM

It wasn't USDA that shut this program down, it was United Fresh. The authors need to get this straight.

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