Sludge Watch ==> U.S. could drop screening produce for deadly strain of E. coli

Maureen Reilly maureen.reilly at
Mon Aug 8 10:19:31 EDT 2011,0,7222819.story
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 
E. coli.
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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