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Tell Obama: Don't Kill USDA Food Safety Testing Program (MDP)

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A USDA food safety program started by Bush is to be killed by Obama at end of December.

Within a few months of taking office, President Obama came face to face with what we have seen for decades – another multi-state foodborne illness outbreak. The now infamous Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella tragedy sickened several hundred throughout the United States and killed nine.

That outbreak – and several others in proceeding years – prompted Congressional action on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) - that President Obama signed into law. However, the law still remains unfunded and many of the food safety rules remain hidden away in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Now because of industry pressure, the Obama administration wants to kill the $4.5M budget for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP).  The program was launched under President Bush's 2001 Food Safety Initiative, and tested about 15,000 samples of fruits and vegetables each year, far more than any other federal or state program.

Here is how the MDP works. Public health officials pull samples of Tomatoes (cherry, round, roma), Cantaloupe, Lettuce (leaf, romaine, cut, and pre-washed), Celery, Parsley, Cilantro, Spinach (bunched and bagged and pre-washed), Hot Peppers, Sprouts (alfalfa and clover), Onions (bulb and green), and yes, even Sasha’s Peanut butter and test for pathogens that can kill kids.

The samples are collected from distribution centers in 11 states that represent about 50 percent of the United States population. Any isolated pathogens are sent for pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) testing and the resulting genetic pattern is uploaded to the Centers for Disease Control PulseNet database so that it can be matched against human isolates or outbreak patterns. MDP also tests all isolates for antimicrobial resistance and contributes data to the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring (NARMS) database.

From 2009 to 2012, MDP found Salmonella 100 times, E. coli O157:H7 twice, and Listeria monocytogenes 8 times. Over the same time period, the program sparked 23 Salmonella recalls, two E. coli O157:H7 recalls, and five Listeria recalls. Of the pathogens the program identified during that time, 39 Salmonella isolates were matched to human illnesses - as were the two E. coli O157:H7 and all eight Listeria isolates.

In Obama's budget request for FY 2013, the administration justified cutting MDP, calling it a "lower-priority program because it is has a low impact and is not central to the core mission of USDA, which is to facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products."

Here are just a few reasons to fully fund the MDP:

• MDP is the only robust sampling program we have. That surveillance data is irreplaceable and will be important for moving forward with FSMA produce safety rule. Having commodity-specific surveillance data can be used by growers to tailor preventative practices.

• MDP does sometimes spark recalls before their sell by or use by dates, which allows retailers to pull potentially contaminated product from shelves before consumers eat it. The $4.5 million program would be more than worth it even if it only prevented one case of E. coli O157:H7 caused acute kidney failure – hemolytic uremic syndrome – in a child.

• MDP has a sampling, testing, and reporting infrastructure in place and can rapidly deploy and begin sampling and testing for outbreak related commodities within a week. It gives health officials rapid response capability. Rapid is good for consumers and good for the industry. The faster we know what is causing an outbreak, the faster we can alert consumers and the faster the impact can be minimized to industry.

As many states cut their public health budgets, MDP gives states resources to help build better microbiological labs. When the program was first launched in 2001, many labs were using antiquated methods. MDP introduced the labs to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and currently real time PCR. With the help of USDA funding, MDP labs are currently state of the art and each is ISO 17025 accredited. By continually sampling throughout the year, MDP staffs are now proficient at testing and isolation of pathogens. This is more art than science and is a skill that is developed not acquired. Given how fast microbiology is evolving, the state labs will not be able to afford to keep up with instrumentation and they will likely be back in the dark ages within a few short years.

Although there has been talk about moving produce testing to FDA (after MDP has been killed), MDP actually saves taxpayers money by being within USDA because it shares resources, staff, and infrastructure with its sister program, the Pesticide Data Program (PDP).

So, President Obama, for the good of our children, don't kill the MDP--fund it! We can't afford to be without it.

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