Funding Cuts for Testing of Deadly Bacteria in Fresh Produce

By Nasima Hossain
Public Health Advocate

The USDA budget would eliminate the nation’s only program that regularly tests fruits and vegetables for deadly pathogens. Cutting this program will leave public health officials without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly foodborne illnesses and to speed up recalls of dangerous fresh produce.

The budget would cut the Agriculture Department’s tiny Microbiological Data Program. This $5 million program screens high-risk fresh produce throughout the year for bacteria including salmonella, E. coli and listeria. If samples are positive, they trigger nationwide recalls, and tries to keep tainted produce from reaching consumers or grocery store shelves. Special interest such as the United Fresh Produce Association and other major trade associations have pushed hard for the government to get rid of the comprehensive testing program saying it costs them millions of dollars in recalled food and they would rather do their own testing.

Cutting this program is a mistake. It’s an extremely useful tool used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent foodborne illness and the program keeps industry in check helping to improve safety measures on farms and packinghouses. Without this program there is a real danger the fresh produce we buy from grocery stores won’t be safe to eat. Can we really rely on the private sector to do its own testing? Clearly what industry is really saying is that they don’t care about selling unsafe produce.

Last year’s recalls of pre-packaged fresh cilantro and bagged spinach from the marketplace were done after the program detected salmonella in random samples. And nearly one-third of the major, multistate foodborne illness outbreaks in 2011 were caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables. We are still also in the midst of the cantaloupe outbreak with death toll still rising. If this program gets cut the FDA and the CDC will not be able to replicate it, and both are heavily dependent on using it as a first line of defense in protecting the public against foodborne illnesses from fresh produce.

This is again a clear example of special interest doing what’s best for their profit margins, regardless of the dangers to human health. It is also a clear example of why we have to keep opposing passage of the (Reins Act S.299),the (RAA Act S.1606) and the (RFIA Act S.1939) all three bills will allow special interest to keep putting business profits ahead of consumer health and safety protections. If these bills are passed we will definitely see special interest intensify their lobbying efforts to cut more health and safety testing programs such as the Microbiological Data Program-all for profit.




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