Protect the Public from Tainted Produce? Outrageous!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The produce industry, fresh off a failed attempt to get the federal government to fuzz up the results of its annual tests for pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, is at it again.

This time it’s working hard to turn the lights off at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program, which tests fresh produce for disease-causing pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.

You know, those food-contaminating bacteria that have repeatedly made hundreds, if not thousands, of people fall ill or die.

Incredibly, David Gombas, the senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh Produce, the trade association that represents the largest produce and pesticide companies, complained to reporter Monica Eng of the Chicago Tribune that the germ-testing program “got twisted and it turned into a regulatory program where they were finding contamination and turning it over to the FDA and causing recalls."

What an outrage!

Government researchers find potentially deadly bacteria contaminating the food Americans eat and they share that information with the public? And ask producers to recall their tainted products before people get sick?

How dare they!

United Fresh is the same outfit that has been campaigning relentlessly to fudge or downplay the results of government tests of pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. Now it has taken aim at a USDA program that since 2001 has been testing produce for contamination at terminal markets and large chain store distribution centers, just before the food reaches the consumer.

Not a surprise considering this statement from the United Fresh website:

“During the past two years, United has monitored and helped block over 100 legislative proposals on food safety in Congress.”

In 2009, the program tested for both salmonella and E. coli nearly 17,000 samples of these popular produce items: cantaloupe, cilantro, green onions, hot peppers, lettuce (both conventional and organic), spinach, alfalfa, clover, and tomatoes. It also did a special survey of peanut butter at the request of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after a salmonella outbreak caused more than 700 cases of peanut butter-linked poisoning in late 2008 and early 2009.

What’s so impressive about the Microbiological Data Program is not just its success in identifying and preventing possible foodborne illness outbreaks, but its cost-effectiveness, given that its budget is just $4.5 million a year.

All of this could come to an end. Someone slipped language into a House appropriations bill to zero out funding for the testing program. We’re not sure which member of Congress added the provision, but it’s fairly clear from the Chicago Tribune report that it’s what the produce industry wanted.

USDA’s Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, made up of industry representatives, noted in a memo to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, obtained by EWG, that, “The sample is tested for pathogens of concern. If any product tests positive, the test result is forwarded to the FDA.”

Hmm, that seems like a good thing. But apparently the produce industry doesn’t agree.

The memo went on to say:

“In practice, the source farm is contacted by FDA, and without apparent investigation, requests that all related products are recalled.”

That also seems like good thing, at least for public health. But the produce guys can’t stand this either.

Just since 2009 there have been 19 or 20 recalls of tainted produce as a result of tests conducted by the testing program, which undoubtedly prevented people from getting sick, or worse.

Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler definitely thinks that’s a good thing, as he wrote when he blogged about the industry’s efforts to kill the USDA testing program:

“We have not had a major leafy green outbreak since the spinach and Taco Bell outbreaks in 2006. Does not that argue for keeping a testing program in place? Sure, there likely have been recalls or product withdraws, but isn't getting tainted product out of the market a good thing?”

The FDA, which has primary oversight over the food industry and a much larger budget, only tests about 1,000 samples of produce each year, and most of those are imports that get checked at when they arrive. The USDA program, meanwhile, tests roughly 16,000 samples a year of domestic, imported, organic and conventional food items. Which do you think has more impact in preventing outbreaks?

Apparently the produce industry’s favored approach to warning consumers about possible pathogen outbreaks is, “Call if you get sick.”

If it is possible to prevent illness, shouldn’t that be the top priority of the government and the produce industry?

I guess not.


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