The House Republicans’ war on food safety continues. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, the House recently voted to kill the USDA’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP), a 10-year-old program that tests produce for a wide variety of pathogens, including the strain of E. coli that caused the deadly outbreak in Germany.
Every year, the MDP screens around 15,000 samples of produce the agency considers particularly vulnerable to contamination, such as sprouts, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and cilantro, for pathogens, including salmonella and multiple strains of E. coli. If anything is found, the information is passed on to the FDA, which can then institute a recall. Significantly, the MDP represents a much broader testing regime than the FDA’s own, which only manages to screen 1,000 samples a year.
Despite the fact that positive tests out of the MDP have led to 19 recalls in the last two years, the produce lobby has been agitating for some time to kill it as another one of those onerous, wasteful, and “duplicative” government programs. The Tribune references a memo written this spring by the produce lobby and sent to USDA Chief Tom Vilsack laying out these arguments, and it appears the House GOP decided to act on them.
This battle gets to the problematic and Byzantine nature of our food safety laws. One of the industry’s objections is that the MDP is run by the USDA’s marketing service, the arm of the agency responsible for promoting U.S. agricultural products. While the program was partly intended to demonstrate the safety of American produce, there’s no denying that it’s now used as part of U.S. food safety enforcement protocol. In the eyes of industry, that’s bad for business.
In fact, by law it’s the FDA that’s in charge of produce safety. But somehow, the only entity actually testing for new, deadly strains of E. coli and salmonella is the one that’s supposed to encourage consumers to buy more produce.
Indeed, the MDP’s $4.5 million budget is minuscule in the grand budgetary scheme of things; this clearly has little to do with saving money. While it’s worth considering if the program should be moved intact under the FDA’s authority, under no circumstances can one legitimately argue that we’re better off not testing for killer bugs in our veggies — just ask the families of those who lost loved ones to the German E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated sprouts. Only the twisted logic of corporate lobbyists can do that — aided by legislators too blinded by their influence to see the dangerous game they play.