Budget Cuts Will Kill Safety Program That Caught Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria Outbreaks

PHOTO: A listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe killed at least 30 people in 2011.

Food safety advocates are frantically trying to save a little-known produce inspection program that accounts for 80 percent of all government testing of produce and has prompted recalls of tainted fruits and vegetables around the country, including an April recall of bagged spinach contaminated with salmonella.

The Microbiological Data Program (MDP), part of the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), has been slashed from the Obama administration's 2013 budget request, which says that other government agencies have better resources with which to test produce. Food safety advocates are worried that a major source of detection for salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens will leave American consumers vulnerable.

"It stops people from getting sick in the first place and industry can learn about how that product became tainted. Both of those makes moral and economic sense," attorney Bill Marler, publisher of Food Safety News, told ABC News. He added that the money cutting the program will save -- $4.4 million -- is "chump change" compared to the benefits of keeping it.

According to Food Safety News, MDP tests an average of four times as many produce samples each year as the FDA, and eliminating it would cut government testing by 80 percent. The food safety blog reported that over a three-year period, MDP found salmonella in samples it tested 100 times, resulting in 23 salmonella recalls, including an April recall of bagged lettuce by Dole. It also prompted recalls after it found listeria and a particular strain of E. coli in other produce samples.

The MDP was launched in 2001 with the goal of monitoring food-borne pathogens in U.S. produce by sampling and testing fruit and vegetables in partnership with 11 states that account for 50 percent of the U.S. population. While the MDP doesn't regulate food safety, it works closely with and provides data to the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, especially during an outbreak. According to the MDP website, in 2012 it is testing a number of types of produce, including alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupe and bagged lettuce and spinach.

The testing isn't meant to be preventive, but the MDP maintains that samples are collected "close to the point of consumption" -- such as produce distribution centers -- so that if a harmful pathogen is discovered, the source could easily be traced and the product can be pulled from shelves.

Outbreaks tied to fresh produce have grabbed headlines in recent years, including the 2011 listeria contamination in cantaloupe that killed at least 30 people and the 2008 outbreak of a strain of salmonella in jalapeno peppers that sickened thousands around the country. But the produce industry has maintained that the FDA -- which investigated and took action in those cases -- is better equipped to regulating contamination.

"We support a strong testing program by that agency," Ray Gilmer of the United Fresh Produce Association, the industry's trade group, told ABC News. "We have always supported strong appropriations for FDA, and that would include testing protocols that they believe would be effective in monitoring for public health and be scientifically accurate. The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service is not the right place to conduct public health testing."

He added, "We believe that by the time USDA's MDP has detected something and notified FDA, the product has already been eaten."

Bill Marler is unconvinced. "Industry does not like testing because it prompts recalls and recalls are seen by industry as embarrassing. I see testing and recalls as positive for both consumers and industry."

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At least one lawmaker has launched a last-ditch effort to save the program. In a letter urging the Office of Management and Budget to restore funding to MDP, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D.-Connecticut, noted the program performed more than 35,000 tests on over 17,400 produce samples in 2011 alone.

"It is unacceptable for this valuable, cost-effective program – and the only program dedicated to improving our understanding of the bacterial contamination of produce – to be eliminated," Rep. DeLauro wrote. "A critical program like this should not slip through the cracks because of questions of where it best belongs."

A spokesperson for the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service told ABC News today that the program is ongoing and there has been no word on its future status.

In the House appropriations bill, it was noted that the AMS may be better suited to focus on the marketing – and not the testing – of produce: "While food safety is a vitally important part of successfully marketing produce and other agricultural products, other Federal and State public health agencies are better equipped to perform this function."

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