This past summer, the USDA's Microbiological Data Program (MDP) was the agency that ordered cilantro and bagged spinach that had tested positive for salmonella to be removed from grocery store shelves. It also forced a recall of lettuce that had tested positive for E. coli, and started testing cantaloupe regularly for Listeria after an outbreak that left 13 people dead.
As part of President Obama's 2013 budget, this program will be shut down.
Rationale for Ending the USDA's Produce Safety Testing Program
In an Associated Press story about this proposed cut from the budget, White House Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Meg Reilly said that the decision was made because the program, which tests domestically-grown produce, had limited impact. More interesting (to me, at least) she also said that the USDA believed that the program just didn't fit in with its Agricultural Marketing Service division -- which is partially funded by fees collected from growers.
USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe commented that, "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." [Emphasis mine.]
So...this is being cut because it isn't helping the marketing department enough? It's hard to believe that a program that discovers and recalls harmful produce nationwide can really have a "limited impact." Big Produce should be happy with the decision. It has been lobbying to get rid of this program for years. They believe it unfairly targets growers for conditions beyond their control, and thinks the private sector should do more testing on its own.
Unimportant, or Not?
On the other side of the argument, Food and Drug Administration Produce Safety staff director Samir Assar said that the testing of certain high-risk crops such as sprouts, tomatoes, and cantaloupe (which were tested regularly by the MDP) would now have to be undertaken by state and local agencies, many of which are already cash-strapped and short on staff.
Food safety advocates are unhappy with the proposed cut, because the data collected by the MDP helps pinpoint the cause of produce-related illness outbreaks (which leads to recalls to prevent others from falling ill) and this data can't easily or reliably be replaced by the companies' own internal tests or local programs. Food Safety News reports that although the USDA's Microbiological Data Program is being eliminated, federal spending for food safety regulations is going up, mainly because the FDA is rolling out the Food Safety Modernization Act. However, this increase in funding is mainly coming from the food industry itself. The FDA's food safety budget is going to increase in 2013 by $253 million -- $220 million of which would come from industry fees. From Food Safety News' coverage of the budget proposal:
""The end result is that agencies like the FDA are more and more dependent on user fees raised by some of the same industries they oversee," Politico noted Friday. Forty-four percent of Obama's $4.5 billion request for FDA comes from various fees."
There is some talk about the CDC and FDA working together to start collecting data (and the FDA currently tests imported produce), but at this point neither agency has expressed interest in stepping in to replace the testing done by the MDP. The responsibility for testing produce will fall on the industry itself for the most part, and to state and local agencies.