Produce Safety Testing Program Is Spared Budget Ax
The Agriculture Department grudgingly extended the life of the nation's main produce-safety testing program on Monday, just as the initiative was slated to be shut down.
The tiny Microbiological Data Program extensively screens high-risk fresh fruits and vegetables every year for bacteria including salmonella, E. coli and listeria.
It was at risk of being scrapped after President Obama's proposed budget slashed the effort's funding, but USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said Monday the program will continue operating through December.
"While the Microbiological Data Program does not align with USDA's core mission, the department will continue its work with state partners using existing agreements to conduct sampling and testing through this program through the end of the year," he said in a statement.
Public health officials and food safety advocates have argued that getting rid of the program would leave the country without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly foodborne illness outbreaks.
If samples test positive for bacteria, it can trigger nationwide recalls and keep tainted produce from reaching consumers or grocery store shelves.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's top food-germ investigator, has said the information also can help pinpoint foods tied to illness outbreaks, and would not easily be replaced by companies' internal tests or more modest federal sampling programs.
According to the CDC, nearly one-third of the major, multistate foodborne illness outbreaks in 2011 were caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables.