I’ve written a lot about the budget cuts that are happening to the farm bill both in the Senate and in the House, but those cuts are affecting other programs as well. Most notably in the news right now is the Microbiological Data Program.
This relatively small program—which only costs $4.5 million per year—is the only one that comprehensively tests produce for pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. (Remember that cantaloupe outbreak last fall?) They also put all their results into the CDC’s comprehensive database used to help link illnesses to food products.
Surprisingly, the produce industry is actually the group that’s asking for this program to be eliminated. According to the Chicago Tribune, “the USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee complained about ‘unnecessary recalls’ and asked if the funds would be ‘better utilized elsewhere.’” (I don’t really think that 19 recalls in two years is “unnecessary.”) And the senior vice president of public policy for United Fresh told The Grower, “As we said before, we continue to believe that USDA’s MDP program is not the right way to go in terms of a testing program for microbiological testing on fresh produce. Certainly FDA has the tools, resources and capabilities to do this on their own.”
The problem is that the FDA has no such resources. It already does check some produce, but it’s a tiny amount compared to what the MDP checks annually. (You can see more specific numbers on Food Safety News.) The “tiny program that matters” (according to The New York Times) is important considering that in 2011, one-third of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. were linked to produce.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut is encouraging the administration to continue funding this program. You can read Michele Simon’s letter to Michelle Obama or Bill Marler’s editorial and even sign the petition.