(March 19) Released with little fanfare, the first data summary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s controversial Microbiological Data Program was met with mixed industry reaction.
Mostly, however, industry leaders were pleased that tests from 2002 found very low incidence of potential pathogens in fresh produce.
The program, conducted by the Agricultural Marketing Service in cooperation with the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control, sampled cantaloupe, celery, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce and tomatoes at wholesale distribution centers in 10 states.
More than 10,000 samples — 86% domestic, 11% imported and 3% not identified — were analyzed for E. coli and salmonella.
The results showed only three positive results for salmonella among 10,315 samples. Meanwhile, the number testing positive for virulence attributed to E. coli was 64 out of 10,276 tested.
The low number of pathogens identified is a testament to the work and commitment of the industry to good agricultural practice and good handling practices, industry sources said.
“We should look at this as a long-term project,” Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers, Irvine, Calif.
McInerney also chairs a working group on MDP for the fruit and vegetable advisory committee.
After several years, he said MDP data should provide a benchmark that will allow analysis of needed supply chain improvements in production and distribution systems, he said.
McInerney said the industry has collaborated with government regulators since the mid-1990s to employ good agricultural practices. He said the industry will continue to work with government to develop improvements in systems and technology to further enhance food safety.
Although there was a higher percent of samples flagged for pathogens in leaf lettuce and romaine lettuce than other commodities, McInerney said the results should be taken in the context of the extremely low overall incidence among 10,000 samples.
Kathryn Mattingly, spokes-woman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said that just because a sample tests positive for virulence attributes doesn’t mean people would become sick from eating that produce.
“The ability of a virulence factor to cause disease in humans is a complex interplay of proteins encoded on numerous genes including genes from the host,” she said.
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service received congressional funding in 2001 to implement the