Matt Bewig

Bowing to industry lobbying, the Obama administration has proposed eliminating a program that tests fresh produce for food-borne diseases like the listeria outbreak in cantaloupe that killed 36 people in 2011. The USDA microbiological data program (MDP), created by the administration of President George W. Bush in 2001, collects fresh produce samples from distribution centers and terminal markets across the United States and tests them for pathogens. Specifically, MDP tests high-risk produce like alfalfa sprouts, cilantro, green onions, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, and other leafy greens, every one of which has caused a product recall or a food-borne illness outbreak, some of them lethal. The Obama administration has proposed defunding the program. As the program cost is barely $5 million annually, the justification for the cut is not budgetary.

In fact, food industry lobbyists like the United Fresh Produce Association, which spends more than $1 million a year on lobbying, have never liked the program, contending that it needlessly duplicates other government efforts, unfairly burdens growers, may yield false positive test results, and causes unnecessary food recalls. Yet the FDA, which generally has jurisdiction over food safety, lacks the budget to conduct anything more than limited inspections. The industry’s plan is for it to regulate itself via privately contracted testing, a practice the FDA recently termed “an inherent conflict of interest,” and which failed to prevent the deadly Listeria outbreak last year.

When challenged at a House of Representatives appropriations hearing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave weak excuses for eliminating MDP. He said that its mission was not appropriate to agency of which it is a part, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). The Obama budget says the program “is not central to the core mission of AMS, which is to facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products.”