One of the biggest FoodCORE success stories is New York City’s Team Salmonella. In August 2011, a Salmonella outbreak was being investigated by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. With FoodCORE funding, the department was able to employ trained student interviewers to conduct the epidemiological investigation that led to the source of the toxin—kosher chicken livers—and a subsequent product recall.
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2012
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Microbiological Data Program
Is produce becoming more of a risk despite all this progress? According to Michael Doyle, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, “Produce is a leading vehicle for pathogen contamination, responsible for approximately 25% of foodborne illness outbreaks. This is becoming a larger problem because not only are we eating more produce, we are eating more of it raw, thereby exposing ourselves to a greater risk for foodborne illnesses.”
The Microbiological Data Program tests about 15,000 samples of produce for pathogens annually. Over the past two years, the program has begun reporting any pathogens to the FDA, which has been responsible for at least 19 produce recalls. MDP funding has provided state testing agencies and labs with money to improve infrastructure and purchase equipment. Dr. Doyle argued, “The USDA tests meat and dairy items, but the only federal program in place to test produce is the MDP.”
Despite these contributions, in June 2010, the House of Representatives approved a bill ending funding for the MDP. The bill is awaiting its fate in the Senate. While supporters question the wisdom of eliminating a layer of the food safety net, critics of the program do not believe it would be much of a loss.
“According to the stated goals on the MDP’s website, its purpose is to monitor data on targeted pathogens in selected fruits and vegetables, not to report findings to the FDA,” noted David Gombas, PhD, senior vice president for food safety and technology at United Fresh, a produce company trade association. “As it works now, by the time the FDA initiates a recall based on MDP data, the suspect produce is either eaten or past its shelf life.” A better solution, according to Dr. Gombas, would be to skip the MDP “middleman” and give MDP funds directly to the underfunded USDA state labs where it could make a real difference in food safety.
However, while the FDA and CDC work to hunt down pathogens, the locavore movement may be working against them. Small farms that provide locally grown produce are exempted from many testing requirements because the costs of these procedures would be too high for a small grower. Even the FSMA does not cover farmers who earn less than $500,000 a year in revenue, to protect them from crippling costs. But is the consumer protected?
Maybelle Cowan-Lincoln is a science/technical writer based in New Jersey. She is a frequent Wiley-Blackwell contributor who has been featured in numerous publications.