President Barack Obama’s proposed budget eliminates the nation’s only program that regularly tests fruits and vegetables for deadly pathogens, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Microbiological Data Program.
Through this program, the USDA screens high-risk fresh produce for pathogens that can cause deadly foodborne illness such Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria. When samples test positive, the USDA can trigger recalls to prevent tainted produce from harming consumers and use the information to trace back the source of the of a foodborne illness outbreak.
Cutting the program will save an estimated $5 million, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. That’s a small price tag for a huge pubic service, according to food safety advocates. But the USDA feel other agencies are better equipped to handle the task.
“While food safety is a vitally important part of successfully marketing produce and other agricultural products, other federal and state public healthagencies are better equipped to perform this function,” USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in a statement.
The produce industry has been pushing for years to do away with the program saying produce recalls cost growers millions of dollars and place an unfair burden on farmers. The industry would prefer that the private sector to do more of its own testing.
Roughly 48 million Americans, one in six, are sickened by foodborne illness every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die.
In 2011, there were five multi-state outbreaks linked to produce: a romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak that sickened 60 people in 10 states; an imported papaya Salmonella outbreak that sickened 106 people in 25 states; a sprouts Salmonella outbreak that sickened 25 people in five states, a cantaloupe Salmonella outbreak that sickened 20 people in 10 states and the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak that sickened 146 people in 28 states, caused one miscarriage and thirty-one deaths.