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Congress may end funding for E. coli screening in produce

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Monday, July 4, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.

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 an 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, cantaloupes and cilantro for pathogens including salmonella and E. coli.

Over the past 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 "better utilized elsewhere."

Industry representatives call the program duplicative, suggesting that similar screening is 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 others that include the strains of E. coli that contaminated sprouts in Europe, killing 44 and sickening 3,700.

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 the consumer advocacy organization the Environmental Working Group. "Since when does it make sense not to check food for potentially deadly pathogens?"

The question now moves to the Senate, which will craft its version of the discretionary spending bill for 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 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 improvement.

"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 recalls."

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