Sludge Watch ==> U.S. could drop screening produce for deadly strain of E. coli
maureen.reilly at sympatico.ca
Mon Aug 8 10:19:31 EDT 2011
U.S. could drop screening for deadly strain of E. coli
Budget cuts may end routine federal testing of produce for pathogen
By Monica Eng
, Tribune reporter
July 4, 2011
At a time of rising concern over pathogens in produce, Congress is
moving to eliminate the only national program that regularly screens
U.S. fruits and vegetables for the type of E. coli that recently caused
a deadly outbreak in Germany.
The House last month approved a bill that would end funding for the
10-year-old Microbiological Data Program, which tests about 15,000
annual samples of vulnerable produce such as sprouts, lettuce, spinach,
tomatoes, cantaloupe and cilantro for pathogens including salmonella and
Over the last two years, its findings have triggered at least 19 produce
recalls, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The commercial produce industry, which has long expressed concerns about
the program, this spring suggested ending its $4.5 million funding. In a
memo to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA's Fruit and
Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee complained about "unnecessary
recalls" and asked if the funds would be "better utilized elsewhere."
Industry representatives call the program duplicative, suggesting that
similar screening is already done by other agencies.
"We're in a budget climate right now that is looking for a lot of cuts,"
said Kathy Means, of the Produce Marketing Association. "I think there
are other programs out there. So we would not be left in a lurch if the
MDP is not out there."
But defenders of the program note that no other agency tests the same
breadth of produce for pathogens. For example, the FDA typically
spot-checks about 1,000 samples a year, compared with 15,000 for the
Microbiological Data Program. In addition, the only E. coli the FDA
tests for is the O157 H7 strain, but the MDP also tests for non-O157
strains that include the increasingly mercurial and virulent Shiga
toxin-carrying strains of E. coli that contaminated sprouts in Europe,
killing more than 40 and sickening 4,100.
Eliminating the program "may serve the interests of agribusiness, but
it's a serious disservice to consumers and public health," said Ken
Cook, president of Environmental Working Group, a consumer advocacy
organization. "Since when does it make sense not to check food for
potentially deadly pathogens?"
The question now moves to the Senate, which will be crafting its version
of the discretionary spending bill for the FDA and USDA programs over
the next few months.
The Microbiological Data Program was started as a sister program to the
equally controversial Pesticide Data Program, which monitors pesticide
levels on produce. Both work with several states — including Wisconsin,
Ohio and Michigan — to voluntarily test produce at distribution points.
And both are run out of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which
is partially funded by industry fees and designed to promote U.S.
produce. Although both programs create data that largely affirm the
safety of U.S. produce, they've drawn criticism from industry interests
for their potential to share data that could harm growers.
Those critics say the pathogen testing program has overstepped its
original mandate to monitor pathogens in produce, collect data and
calculate a baseline of contamination levels from which to measure
"We thought that was fine and those were good things to do," said David
Gombas, of United Fresh Produce, a major industry association. "But over
time it got twisted and it turned into a regulatory program where they
were finding contamination and turning it over to the FDA and causing
Although sharing data with other public health agencies was part of the
Microbiological Data Program's original mandate, the spring memo from
the produce growers urged the USDA to cease using the program's data "as
an enforcement tool." It also alleged that past recalls have been
triggered by "single samples" of contaminated produce.
"That was not the original design of the program," said Hank Giclas,
senior vice president of science and technology at Western Growers,
which ships much of the nation's produce. "It was not designed as a
regulatory program. They need to focus on how we can identify the
vulnerable areas and offer recommendations on how we can improve food
Staffers with the testing program were not authorized to comment on the
pending legislation, but USDA representatives stress that they don't
make decisions about whether to request a recall. The FDA does.
Leaving the regulatory issues aside, many food safety experts agree that
the testing program fills an important need by maintaining an unbiased
database on produce contamination — an increasingly crucial but
under-studied area of food safety. While much funding and attention have
gone toward tracking pathogens in meat and dairy (the USDA's Food Safety
and Inspection Service has a budget exceeding $900 million for those
areas), relatively little is known about pathogens in produce, said
Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the Division of Foodborne, Waterborne
and Environmental Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and
"Over the last several decades it's become clear that fresh produce is
an increasing part of the food (safety) problem," Tauxe said. "In
contrast to the pathogen data available for meat and poultry … there is
essentially nothing on produce, and MDP is an attempt to create that."
Supporters also say the Microbiological Data Program is the only
national program that regularly screens for the kinds of deadly E. coli
strains that took European scientists by surprise and are of increasing
"If I were a producer of fresh produce I would want to have the program
so I could know if there were problems in my product and I could correct
the situation," said Michael Doyle, a former scientist with the program
who is now director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of
Georgia. "But as public health official and as a consumer I also believe
it's very important to keep this program going."
Giclas counters that often "positive (pathogen) samples don't equate to
any illness in the marketplace at all." The industry's memo expressed
concern over "unnecessary product recalls that do not contribute to the
protection of the public health, undermine consumer confidence in the
safety of the produce supply chain, discourages the consumption of
produce … and damages the reputation of the farmers growing it, along
with (causing) financial injury."
Means, of the Produce Marketing Association, said she believed that
other agencies may be able to perform the testing currently done by the
Microbiological Data Program, and the House bill suggested that the USDA
consider outsourcing the work. But supporters say the uniformity and
efficiency of the program are among its greatest strengths, and that
using various labs would disrupt the consistency necessary to make the
data scientifically useful.
"If it's the exact same protocol year after year ... you start to be
able to look at trends over time," said Michael Hansen, a senior staff
scientist at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. "So when
this legislation comes in or this industry says they will do X, Y and Z
then you can see the impact in the numbers. ... This is an independent
look at the microbial status (of produce), and so I can't see how any
company would not want this information unless they don't think much of
their own capacity for food safety. I would think that any responsible
company would want to improve that."
While there was little debate last month in the House over the provision
to eliminate the program's funding, Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., did try
to retain $1 million of it with an ultimately unsuccessful amendment.
The total budget cuts in the bill amounted to $2.7 billion.
"Congressman Clarke is very concerned about food safety and food
security," said policy adviser David Weinreich. "What's been going on in
Europe really points out how important it is to be continually
collecting data and making sure we know what's going on with our food
and what microbiological contaminants might be in it. We need to let
consumers know we are continually screening so people can have
confidence at home and abroad about our agricultural products."
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