On June 16, the House of Representatives passed its $125.5 billion agriculture plan for 2012. Deep in the bill’s fine print was the elimination of funding for the $4.5 million Microbiological Data Program, which tests vegetables for such diseases as the lethal E. coli strain that’s killed 50 people in western Europe.
The MDP was started in 2001 to help fill gaps in federal and industry safety testing of produce, which has historically received less attention than meat and dairy products.
Run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the program’s agents test some 15,000 market-purchased samples of foreign and domestic alfalfa, spinach, lettuce, cilantro, cherry and plum tomatoes. Results are sent to the Food and Drug Administration, which by comparison tests just 1,000 produce samples in its non-annual surveys.
Moreover, as noted by the Chicago Tribune and food outbreak litigator Bill Marler, the FDA only tests for one pathogenic E. coli strain. The Microbiological Data Program looks for many, including as the virulent new European strain.
According to the FDA, MDP results have led to 19 food recalls in the last two years. But as detailed in notes from a February meeting of the USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, the agriculture industry doesn’t like the MDP. They say it creates unnecessary product recalls and damages farmers’ reputations.