By Stephanie Armour
A U.S. program that tests random produce samples for salmonella and other pathogens is ending, angering food-safety advocates who said the initiative that was knocked down by industry lobbyists protects public health.
Produce sampling stopped Nov. 9 and testing of food already collected will continue, Jim Brownlee, a spokesman at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, said in an e-mail. The program ends Dec. 31.
The move is part of a phase out of the $4.4 million food- testing program, which Congress opted not to fund in its fiscal 2013 budget to the dismay of food-safety advocates who say the lack of screening will imperil consumers. Produce industry leaders who lobbied to end the program say it didn’t protect public health and the USDA isn’t the correct agency to oversee such testing.
“Just last week, potentially contaminated produce was recalled because of this critical program,” Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in a statement. “It is imperative that we continue this cost-effective program that supports more than three-quarters of federal produce testing. I will continue this fight, and urge the administration to continue the program.”
The program has conducted more than 14,000 tests annually, according to the USDA. From 2009 to July 2012, 108 positive tests for salmonella were conducted, two positive tests were found for E.coli O157:H7, and nine positive listeria tests were conducted. Produce is taken for testing from distribution centers before sale, Brownlee said.
The industry pushed to halt the program and has argued testing should be done by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over produce. Recalls of product because of positives in the USDA testing program also occurred after the shelf-life of produce had expired, David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, said in an e-mail.
That meant recalls are done too late to protect public health, he said.
“Identifying contaminated produce after it has been eaten or discarded does not protect public health,” Gombas said. “Any such testing program belongs with a public health agency that can take effective action, not when it’s too late.”
The program, known as the Microbiological Data Program, started in April 2001. It collects information about contaminated produce that is fed into a national database at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to match data against outbreaks. The program, designed for data collection, has spurred at least 30 recalls, according to data analyzed by Food Safety News, a daily online newspaper published by Marler Clark LLP in Seattle.
The Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association in January 2011 held a meeting of its food safety and technology council in California where they discussed plans to lobby against the program, according to minutes of the gathering. Those in attendance included managers from Sunkist Growers Inc., Darden Restaurants Inc. (DRI), Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc., (FDP) Fresh Express Inc. and Monsanto Co., (MON) according to the minutes.
“In 2007-8 the USDA started to use the results for enforcement, not the original intention,” according to the minutes. “Industry was never consulted or had input into the changes.” A decision was made to have Gombas meet with regulators about halting the program.
“Once reviewed, Dave will schedule a meeting with the FDA to review the findings and try to stop this program,” the minutes said.
During another meeting on May 3, 2011, efforts to end the program were also discussed. Plans included a one-day visit by council members to meet with congressional staff, according to the minutes. House support was expected to be easier to obtain than in the Senate, the minutes state.
The minutes and lobbying efforts show industry was opposed to a program that made them look bad, Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer in Seattle, Washington, said in an interview.
“Industry is embarrassed by the finding of pathogens in their product and they don’t want to do a recall,” Marler said. “It has saved people’s lives. United Fresh is killing a program that is embarrassing to its members.”
United Fresh strongly supports the FDA using all resources to ensure rigorous testing and sampling is done, Gombas said in an e-mailed response to questions. The USDA program hasn’t been shown to uncover incidence of foodborne disease or prevented disease from occurring, he said.
“United Fresh Produce Association has been consistent in our support of strong federal government oversight of produce safety for many, many years,” he said.
At least two companies that attended the council meetings where the lobbying efforts were discussed also were subject of recalls because of the testing. Dole Food Co. Inc (DOLE) and Salinas, California-based Taylor Fresh Foods Inc., known as Taylor Farms, attended the meetings, according to the minutes.
The program’s tests spurred a June 2012 recall of bagged salad by Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., a subsidiary of Dole Food Co., for possible listeria. They also led to a May 2012 recall by Taylor Farms of organic baby spinach with possible salmonella contamination, Michael Jarvis, a former spokesman for the USDA, said in July.
Mansour Samadpour, CEO of IEH Laboratories & Consulting Group in Lake Forest Park, Washington, which does testing for the FDA, said the program should continue and that the lobbying by the produce industry is unethical.
“The movers and shakers in industry, Fresh Express and Taylor Farms, are having recalls and they don’t like it,” he said in an interview. “Trade associations were created to promote trade. In my opinion, they should be punished if they get involved in anything like this.”