Mike the Mad Biologist

In light of the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany that has killed nearly forty people, one would think the U.S. would be strengthening, not weakening microbiological surveillance in agriculture. One would be very, very wrong:

At a time of rising concern over pathogens in produce, Congress is moving to eliminate the only national program that regularly screens U.S. fruits and vegetables for the type of E. coli that recently caused a deadly outbreak in Germany.

The House last month approved a bill that would end funding for the 10-year-old Microbiological Data Program, which tests about 15,000 annual samples of vulnerable produce such as sprouts, lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, cantaloupe and cilantro for pathogens including salmonella and E. coli.

Over the last two years, its findings have triggered at least 19 produce recalls, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Of course, corporate propagandists are trying to portray this as an important budget cutting move–austerity, it’s what’s for dinner:

Industry representatives call the program duplicative, suggesting that similar screening is already done by other agencies.

“We’re in a budget climate right now that is looking for a lot of cuts,” said Kathy Means, of the Produce Marketing Association. “I think there are other programs out there. So we would not be left in a lurch if the MDP is not out there.”

But defenders of the program note that no other agency tests the same breadth of produce for pathogens. For example, the FDA typically spot-checks about 1,000 samples a year, compared with 15,000 for the Microbiological Data Program. In addition, the only E. coli the FDA tests for is the O157 H7 strain, but the MDP also tests for non-O157 strains that include the increasingly mercurial and virulent Shiga toxin-carrying strains of E. coli that contaminated sprouts in Europe, killing more than 40 and sickening 4,100.

We’ve seen this before: the corporate ag lobby always claims misallocation of resources–and then they come up with a ‘helpful’ solution that, well, isn’t helpful, but harmful. Like this:

Means, of the Produce Marketing Association, said she believed that other agencies may be able to perform the testing currently done by the Microbiological Data Program, and the House bill suggested that the USDA consider outsourcing the work. But supporters say the uniformity and efficiency of the program are among its greatest strengths, and that using various labs would disrupt the consistency necessary to make the data scientifically useful.

“If it’s the exact same protocol year after year … you start to be able to look at trends over time,” said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports. “So when this legislation comes in or this industry says they will do X, Y and Z then you can see the impact in the numbers. … This is an independent look at the microbial status (of produce), and so I can’t see how any company would not want this information unless they don’t think much of their own capacity for food safety. I would think that any responsible company would want to improve that.”

This is the same kind of crap that ‘statistically significant sampling‘ is: a way force regulatory and surveillance programs to spend their limited resources on things that don’t matter. Anyone who has ever done high-throughput microbiology knows that splitting the work among multiple labs will cost more–and thus decrease monitoring. Why? If nothing else, personnel and money have to be used to coordinate the multiple labs. That’s the best case scenario. In the worst case, the different labs generate data that can’t be compared to each other, which, if you’re the one being monitored, is probably a good thing (although that’s very uncivil to mention).

In fact, after reading some of the annual reports, the MDP does have two problems. First, it doesn’t do enough surveillance. Second, there isn’t enough molecular work being done to improve the epidemology. In other words, the program needs more resources, not elimination–and thus piling those responsibilities onto other already overworked programs such as NARMS.

Finally, I want to reemphasize something that’s mentioned in the article. Currently, the U.S. government tracks E. coli O157:H7, which produces the dangerous shiga toxin. But it does not track any of the other shiga toxin producing E. coli, like the German E. coli outbreak strain. If the MDP were eliminated, we would have no way to track these organisms in produce–like sprouts (which are thought to be the proximate source of the German outbreak). In 2009 discovered a new strain of shiga toxin-producing E. coli (which was then sent to the CDC for further analysis and typing). Instead, we would have to wait for an outbreak to occur. But what’s a little death and renal failure among friends?

So now we must place our hope in the august solons of the U.S. Senate to preserve this program.

Um, yeah.

Would you like sprouts with that?

An aside: Vegetarians rise up? Maybe? Cuz this is what you’re eating. Just saying.

Comments

  1. #1 Martin Barrett
    July 6, 2011

    Why are you blaming this on lobbyists? Did they recently acquire the right to vote in the House?

    This is Republicans at work, pure and simple.

  2. #2 Neil Craig
    July 6, 2011

    Another example of how small businesses are more innovative than large ones.

    If “Big Ag” really is “trying to make you sick” it has been much less successful than the organic food industry.In the last few weeks 33 people died from an e coli outbrak on an organic farm in Fermany. Presunably from the organic fertiliser they spread.

    Imagine how newsworthy the media would have found it if it had been “Big Ag” instead.

    Imagine how newsworthy it would be if it had been a nuclear accident instead. After all Fukushima killed 33 less and it nade a few front pages and calls for bans.

    The disparity between the way deaths from relatively medieval practices like organic farming and procvesses that push the technolgy enelope like GM and nuclear, both of which are undeniably orders of magnitude safer, shows how mired in anti-scientific Luddism our media are.

  3. #3 Surgoshan
    July 6, 2011

    Republicans and corporations are so emo. They’re way too into cutting.

  4. #4 Jesse
    July 6, 2011

    So, Neil, less monitoring would solve this problem how, exactly?

    Nobody has said much about the practice of organic farming per se. But answer this (and I will take a page from your book) do you accept or not that uniformity of monitoring practices is helpful? Do you accept or not that it is necessary? The whole point is to avoid a situation like in Germany, whether or not the food comes from an organic farm.

  5. #5 Neil Craig
    July 7, 2011

    “do you accept or not that uniformity of monitoring practices is helpful?”

    Absolutely, that was precisely the point I was making. I accept that monitoring should be on a level playing field & thus that the most risky activities should have the most monitoring, irrespective of political pull..

    In response Jesse perhaps you would say whether you do – bearing in mind that organic farms are clearly much more dangerous than “Big Ag” or indeed nuclear power?

  6. #6 Katharine
    July 7, 2011

    I dunno if organic farms’ problems are germane to the main issue, which is making sure shit doesn’t grow bacteria.

    I suspect the vast majority of people who suggest cuts to these programs have never actually seen what these programs do.

    I suggest any politician who wants to cut money to a program first spend a day at the offices of said program and learn what it does.

  7. #7 Neil Craig
    July 7, 2011

    “I dunno if organic farms’ problems are germane to the main issue, which is making sure shit doesn’t grow bacteria.”

    Perhaps you also don’t know if water is germane to getting wet. What exactly do you think organic farmers do?

    The ability of people, who might in some circumstances be considered intelligent and rational, to insist that black is not darker than white when they want to is astounding.

  8. #8 Wow
    July 8, 2011

    “What exactly do you think organic farmers do?”

    What do you think chemical fertilisers do?

    What do you think pesticides do?

  9. #9 Really, just wow
    July 8, 2011

    I was a little stunned. From what I understand from the articles, they want to remove testing… so that there won’t be anymore recalls… so that they will have more money….

    Uh… I’m kinda speechless now.