Expand Microbiological Data Progam, E. Coli Expert Urges

Rather than eliminating the 10-year-old Microbiological Data Program, which tests about 15,000 samples of produce such as sprouts, lettuce, tomatoes, and cantaloupe for pathogens annually, the USDA should expand the program, said Alfredo G. Torres, PhD, associate professor in the departments of microbiology and immunology and pathology at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in Texas.

Data from the MDP have brought about 19 recalls—something the program wasn’t originally intended to do.

In January, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would end the program’s $4.5 million in annual funding, a move originally proposed by the commercial produce industry, which calls MDP’s efforts duplicative and unnecessary.

But others say that without MDP, there would be virtually no federal-level testing for E. coli non-0157:H7 strains in produce—one of which was the culprit in last year’s fenugreek seed-related outbreak in Germany that killed more than 40 people. The FDA only tests for the 0157:H7 strain.

Data from the MDP have brought about 19 recalls—something the program wasn’t originally intended to do. It was created as a data collection program, designed to establish baseline levels of contamination and provide benchmarks for improvement.

Dr. Torres said that if MDP is shuttered, there are few other places its portfolio of non-0157 STEC testing could be moved. “The only viable option could be transferring the responsibility to the state health departments; however, they currently do not have sufficient funding to absorb such a program.”

Private laboratories or universities could be alternative testing sources, but that raises additional questions, he said. “Specific requirements regarding standardized testing, transfer of data to federal agencies, and the source of funding, etc., are roadblocks to such a program.”

Dr. Torres suggested the USDA consider expanding and improving the testing component of the program. “There is enough scientific evidence indicating that the number of outbreaks associated with consumption of contaminated fruits and vegetables have increased in recent years, which makes a program such as MDP valuable,” he noted.

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