The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reportedly agreed to fund produce safety inspections through the end of 2012 despite the government’s failure to include the agency’s Microbiological Data Program (MDP) in next year’s budgets. According to media sources, neither the Obama administration nor Congress allocated resources for the 11-year-old program, which coordinates with local officials to screen alfalfa sprouts, cantaloupe, cilantro, hot peppers, lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes for pathogens such as E. coli (STEC), E. coli 0157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, and Salmonella.  

Responsible for 30 recalls since 2009, the MDP has garnered praise from consumer groups that have since decried its imminent demise while lambasting public officials for dispensing with the $5 million needed to keep the program running. “It’s a small sum of money in the government sense,” David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told reporters. “For the government, it’s not even a rounding error.”  

One USDA advisory board has apparently suggested, however, that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) take responsibility for the MDP as part of its food safety mandate. In particular, the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have questioned the efficacy of using late-stage inspections to initiate recalls that do little to determine where or when the contamination occurred. These industry groups have argued that FDA’s approach to food safety inspections might yield better results for both producers and consumers. “In these economic times, it doesn’t make sense to duplicate other efforts,” one PMA spokesperson said. “FDA has strong programs in place and is on the verge of proposing many more as it works to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.” See The Washington Post, July 12, 2012; Law360, July 17, 2012.