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.
Would you like sprouts with that?
An aside: Vegetarians rise up? Maybe? Cuz this is what you’re eating. Just saying.