In the wake of Germany’s massive and deadly E. coli outbreak, vigilantly screening against potentially dangerous strains of E. coli hiding in fresh produce has never been more important. Or not – Congress must not be so concerned, with the House of Representatives passing a bill that would cut all funding for the Microbiological Data Program, the U.S.’s only national program that regularly screens fruits and vegetables for deadly strains of E. coli.
According to the Chicago Tribune, the Microbiological Data Program tests around 15,000 samples annually of especially susceptible produce such as sprouts, tomatoes, spinach, lettuce, cantaloupe, and cilantro for deadly pathogens including salmonella and E. coli over its ten year tenure. In the past two years alone, the Tribune reports that the Microbiological Data Program’s findings have led to over 19 produce product recalls.
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Those recalls didn’t sit well with the U.S. agriculture industry, which has been lobbying hard this year in favor of cutting the program. The industry’s position is that the Microbiological Data Program leads to unnecessary recalls, as well as that that similar work done by other agencies makes it superfluous. A member of the USDA's Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee has been reported as asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack whether the Microbiological Data Program’s $4.5 million in funding couldn’t be “better utilized elsewhere.”
On the other hand, many have come out in defense of the Microbiological Data Program by arguing that no other agency tests such a wide breadth of produce. (The Tribune gives the example that the FDA tests 1,000 samples per year, against the Microbiological Data Program’s 15,000 samples.) The Microbiological Data Program also tests for a wider variety of E. coli strains than most other agencies, including the deadly strain that lead to over 40 deaths in Germany last month. It’s argued that cutting the program could open U.S. consumers up to a highly increased risk of food-borne illness.
It’s not all said and done yet, however: the bill still requires the approval of the Senate before it can fully come to fruition, meaning that there is still time for both sides to fully plead their case.