SAN FRANCISCO – President Barack Obama‘s proposed budget would eliminate the nation’s only program that regularly tests fruits and vegetables for deadly pathogens, leaving public health officials without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly food borne illness outbreaks.
The budget plan the president sent to Congress on Monday would ax the Agriculture Department‘s tiny Microbiological Data Program, which extensively screens high-risk fresh produce throughout the year for bacteria including salmonella, E. coli and listeria.
If samples are positive, they can trigger nationwide recalls, and keep tainted produce from reaching consumers or grocery store shelves.
Food safety advocates and a top-ranking U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official said the information also can help pinpoint foods tied to illness outbreaks, and would not easily be replaced by companies’ internal tests or more modest federal sampling programs.
“It’s the radar gun that keeps the industry honest and if that’s eliminated, we don’t have a program that will keep the industry in check,” said Mike Doyle, director of the University of Georgia‘s Center for Food Safety, which works with the produce industry to improve safety measures on farms and in packing houses. “This is really important because you and I eat that food and we don’t want to get sick.”
White House Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Meg Reilly said the decision to cut the $5 million program was made after USDA decided it had limited impact. She said USDA also determined it was not a good fit within its Agricultural Marketing Service division, which is partially funded by fees collected from produce growers. “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,” USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said.
Major trade associations have repeatedly pushed the government in recent years to get rid of the comprehensive testing program, saying it has cost growers millions in produce recalls and unfairly targeted farmers who aren’t responsible for contaminating the food. They want the private sector to do more of its own testing.
Until next time,