Microbiological Data Program. Produce groups criticized the program almost from its inception, questioning the purpose of the program and complaining that it was a duplication of FDA testing.
The purpose of the program, the USDA said March 16, is to provide statistically valid information about microbial organisms on fresh fruit and vegetables. Benefits from the program were expected in the form of a “national produce microbiological baseline,” that would provide benchmarks against which change can be measured and improvement in production and distribution could be planned.
However, there is still industry concern that media could misinterpret and sensationalize the data.
Jeff Stephens, communications director with Scientific Certification Systems, a third-party food safety certification company based in Emeryville, Calif., noted that most illnesses caused by E. coli have been linked to eating undercooked, contaminated ground beef, not produce.
“If you look at it purely as a scientific venture of data collection, the incident rate (of pathogens) is very very low,” said Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs with the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington D.C.
However, she said the lack of context provided by the USDA in the MDP report is troubling in the sense that it leaves the data to the interpretation of the readers.
“Just because you identify a virulence factor, doesn’t mean that it would cause disease in humans,” she said.
Garren said she hopes the report does not result in unfounded stories that cause consumers to fear the safety of the food supply or to impose new mandates on the industry.
Bob Epstein, deputy administrator of Science and Technology Programs for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, told the fruit and vegetable advisory committee in February that a few changes were coming to the program in 2004.
The program, which has tested celery, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, tomatoes and cantaloupe for salmonella and E. coli, may see changes for 2004, including dropping celery, combining leaf and romaine lettuce as one commodity, introducing alfalfa sprouts and testing 300 samples each of green onions, parsley and cilantro.
Mattingly said 2003 data could be released later this year — possible in the summer.
The March 16 MDP summary report also said new, more sensitive screening methods would be introduced in 2004 and additional pathogens would be targeted.