USDA finds few microbes in produce

03/19/2004 12:00:00 AM
Tom Karst

(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.

BACKGROUND

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service received congressional funding in 2001 to implement the

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.

CHANGES

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.

The link to the 24-page report is available at www.ams.usda-.gov/science/MPO/Download.htm.



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