Publisher’s Platform: Is the FDA reviving the MDP without telling us?

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Opinion

The FDA is launching a new, temporary testing program for the romaine lettuce from commercial coolers in the Yuma, AZ, growing region. Romaine from the area has been linked to several foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years.

Samples will be tested for Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) and Salmonella spp. as part of ongoing surveillance efforts following the spring 2018 multistate E. coli O157:H7 outbreak of foodborne illness. Since then there have been other outbreaks linked to romaine from the Yuma area and parts of California. Salmonella spp. also commonly causes foodborne illness outbreaks in the United States which have at times been linked to romaine lettuce consumption, according to a statement today from the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA plans to begin collecting samples from commercial coolers in February and intends to continue sampling through the end of the romaine harvest season in Yuma. The FDA testing program will focus on the commercial cooler and cold storage facilities where field heat is removed from harvested romaine and where the product is cold stored before processing and shipment, according to the agency announcement.

Consistent with the action plan, the agency will engage with the industry in conducting root cause analyses for any positive samples found during this assignment. Root cause analyses are important in that they seek to identify potential sources and routes of contamination, inform what preventive measures are needed, and help prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

Here is Editor Dan Flynn’s editorial from Food Safety News from Spring 2012:

Big Fresh has the blood on its hands.

The big fruit and vegetable lobby managed to kill a little food safety program (Microbiologic Date Program – MDP) that cost this $3 trillion government a grand total of $5 million annually. Chump change.

Big Fresh meanwhile has its snout so far up the 2012 Farm Bill trough that it’s going to reap hundreds of millions of dollars worth of business for fruit and vegetable growers, thanks to the federal government’s willingness to take our money and put us further in debt.

But nothing for the little “trip wire” that was out there catching pathogens in fruits and vegetables – not even after last year’s (2011) cantaloupe-caused Listeria incident that killed more people than any other foodborne illness outbreak in a century.

Big Fresh, also known as the United Fresh Produce Association, through its paid lobbyists, gets the credit for the kill.

But as my more objective colleagues Helena Bottemiller and Gretchen Goetz have reported over the past few months, it was President Obama who zeroed out USDA’s 11-year old Microbiological Data Program in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Back in February, U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, grilled Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the bone-headed move. The Secretary hemmed and hawed about the MDP being inconsistent with the mission of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

Actually, that’s true. The AMS has never really been much concerned about food safety, nor is Big Fresh.

Rep. DeLauro probably would have been more effective if she’d pointed out that 7 of the 11 state laboratories involved in MDP are located in swing states and it really does not look good for the president to putting those “lab rats” out of work.

Sadly, other than the heroic stand DeLauro did make, the rest of the Congress complied. It means the states involved will be shutting down the program in July when their laboratories get their last payment.

Speaking of payments, it will be interesting to see how much money Obama and members of Congress on the relevant committees will be collecting before this year is out from those who put fruits and vegetables on their employment line.

While putting its foot on the oxygen tube for the only program testing produce for pathogens, Big Fresh is racking up millions upon millions for fruit and vegetable growers in the 2012 Farm Bill games.

The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable line item alone is said to be approaching $200 million. Big Fresh wants that money, for sure, but nothing for testing fresh produce for pathogens.

From 2002-2011, the MDP conducted tests in 42 states on 120,887 samples of fruits and vegetables, including cantaloupe, celery, green onions, hot peppers, leaf lettuce, romaine lettuce, bagged lettuce, parsley, peanut butter, spinach, bagged spinach, alfalfa sprouts and tomatoes.

By my calculation, these tests were completed at a cost of something north of about $200 each. Believe me, Big Fresh spilled more on the floor of their last congressional reception than that.

Leave it to Washington D.C. to kill a tiny cost-effective food safety program while being clueless about fiscal responsibility in general.

Let’s give credit to where credit is due. Big Fresh gets credit for:

– Killing the nation’s only produce surveillance program.

– Turning Congress against the only program to collect data on the prevalence of foodborne pathogens in domestic and imported produce.

– Leaving the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state health departments in the dark about the incidence of pathogens in fresh produce commodities.

Under the MDP program, positive test results were immediately reported to FDA, CDC and state health agencies. MDP testing was responsible for 23 produce recalls during 2010 and 2011 alone, and 15 of those involved human illnesses.

Like I said, MDP testing has been a trip wire. If Big Fresh came with a brain, it would be able to figure out on its own that a system that catches problems early is best for fruit and vegetable growers.

Big Fresh, however, does not have clue. As recently as last week, a bagged organic spinach recall for Salmonella was because an MDP lab detected the contamination.

Yes, fresh produce gets consumed pretty quickly, often before test results are known. But that was no reason to kill MDP. We should be going back to places where contamination has occurred and find out what’s going on.

Had there been an early test of Jensen Farms cantaloupe, maybe some government inspector – state or federal – might have paid a visit and said: “Hey! Isn’t that a potato washer?”

Such a discovery might have saved as many as 36 lives that poisoned cantaloupes took last growing season. That blood is not on Big Fresh’s hands. Next time, we’ll see.

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