Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) today urged the Obama Administration to continue the research funded by the Microbiological Data Program (MDP). The MDP collects data from the states on the safety of produce, data that is important to improving food safety.
The MDP is currently not funded for the fiscal year beginning October 1, despite praise for the program. DeLauro's letter to Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Jeffrey Zients urges the Administration to reinstate funding for the following year, saying in part "it is unacceptable for this valuable, cost-effective program -- and the only program dedicated to improving our understanding of the bacterial contamination of produce -- to be eliminated."
DeLauro is the former senior Democrat on the Agriculture Department and Food and Drug Administration's funding committee and a longtime champion for food safety. Most recently, she introduced an amendment to this year's bill funding those departments that would have increased funding for FDA food safety work and restored funding for the MDP.
The letter to Director Zients is as follows:
July 2, 2012
Office of Management and Budget
725 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20503
Dear Mr. Zients:
I write today to urge you to ensure that the data collected by the Microbiological Data Program continues in the coming fiscal years. Specifically, as the fiscal year 2014 budget request is developed, it is critical that the data currently collected by the Microbiological Data Program (MDP) at the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue.
Established to address consumer concerns about the safety of produce, the program was implemented in 2001 and operates via agreements with cooperating states. Those states perform a "statistically-based nationwide sampling and testing program" that allows for the "evaluation of trends in microbial contamination of those commodities throughout the years." Recognizing the value of the data collected by the program, the Administration requested increased funding for the MDP in both Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012. The Fiscal Year 2013 budget notes that "because MDP baseline data reflects changes in cultivation; harvesting practices; post-harvest handling; and packaging of fresh produce it can be used to help fine-tune Good Agricultural Practices."
This program, funded at $4.348 million in fiscal year 2012, is not a regulatory program. In 2011, the Administration noted that "MDP does not regulate food safety" and that it instead "supports food safety efforts while carrying out AMS' mission to facilitate the marketing of domestic agricultural products." The MDP is strictly a data collection program to improve our understanding of the prevalence of foodborne pathogens on high-risk fruit and vegetable products and to enhance consumer confidence in the safety of those food products. In 2011, this single program performed more than 35,000 tests on over 17,400 produce samples. Program leaders intend to conduct even more analyses in 2012.
When appropriate, data collected by the program is submitted into larger databases such as PulseNet, a network that facilitates data sharing among the national network of public health and food agency laboratories. But recalls are not requested based solely on data from PulseNet; the FDA relies on both PulseNet and on reports from field staff. For example, of the 28 MDP samples found to be positive for Salmonella, only 6 resulted in recalls and 5 of those 6 were connected with foodborne illnesses. And it is the only nationwide program that monitors for non-O157 Shiga toxin-producing E. coli. We know that these pathogens present a risk to consumers, and that risk was highlighted in the European outbreak of a non-O157 E. coli that killed more than 40 individuals and caused more than 4,100 illnesses.
The contributions of this cost-effective program to our public health are widely recognized, including the American Public Health Laboratories' observation that its "participation in PulseNet has increased the early detection and surveillance of foodborne pathogens in produce." In a discussion with the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reinforced the need for a better understanding of the bacterial contamination of produce, noting that "it's become clear that fresh produce is an increasing part of the food (safety) problem. In contrast to the pathogen data available for meat and poultry there is essentially nothing on produce, and MDP is an attempt to create that." And food safety expert Dr. Mike Doyle told the Associated Press that the MDP is "the radar gun that keeps the industry honest and if that's eliminated, we don't have a program that will keep the industry in check."
Despite its unique mission and contribution to our understanding of bacterial contamination of produce, this program was proposed for elimination in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. U.S. PIRG noted that "Cutting this program will leave public health officials without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly foodborne illnesses in fresh produce." And the senior advisor for produce safety at the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration indicated that the FDA does not "have the budget or capacity" to collect and analyze as many samples as the MDP. Food safety experts and advocates are outspoken on the unique contribution of the Microbiological Data Program to our understanding of produce safety.
Over the course of Subcommittee hearings earlier this year, it became apparent that this was not due to questions of the program's integrity or value to the public health, but where it should be located within the various Federal agencies responsible for food marketing and food safety. At a House Appropriation Subcommittee hearing earlier this year, Secretary Vilsack did not debate the merits of the program, but noted that he "would be more than happy to see the FDA budget increased by $4 million to do this."
It is unacceptable for this valuable, cost-effective program -- and the only program dedicated to improving our understanding of the bacterial contamination of produce -- to be eliminated. If the question is determining where it should be housed in future Fiscal Years, I urge you to encourage the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to determine where the program should be housed and request funding for the program through the appropriate office.
To continue to best protect the health of American consumers and ensure confidence in the safety of fruits and vegetables sold in the United States, I urge you to include funding for the MDP in your Fiscal Year 2014 budget request. A critical program like this should not slip through the cracks because of questions of where it best belongs.
Rosa L. DeLauro
Member of Congress