Opinion: Could the MDP have prevented the Dole lettuce Listeria outbreak?

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Opinion: Could the MDP have prevented the Dole lettuce Listeria outbreak?

By food poisoning attorney and food safety advocate Bill Marler

Bill MarlerAt the end of 2012 the Microbiological Data Program (MDP), formerly run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ended. Because of produce industry pressure Obama killed a food safety program started by Bush.

Here is how the MDP worked. Public health officials pulled samples of tomatoes (cherry, round, roma), cantaloupe, lettuce (leaf, romaine, cut, and pre-washed), celery, parsley, cilantro, spinach (bunched and bagged and pre-washed), hot peppers, sprouts (alfalfa and clover), onions (bulb and green) to test for pathogens that can kill your kids and mine. And, in fact sickened and killed people in both the U.S. and Canada after they consumed Listeria-tainted lettuce.

The samples were collected from distribution centers in 11 states that represented about 50% of the United States population. Any isolated pathogens were sent for pulsed field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) testing and the resulting genetic pattern was uploaded to the Centers for Disease Control PulseNet database so that it could be matched against human isolates or outbreak patterns. MDP also tested all isolates for antimicrobial resistance and contributed data to the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring (NARMS) database.

From 2009 to 2012, MDP found Salmonella 100 times, E. coli O157:H7 twice, and Listeria monocytogenes 8 times. Over the same time period, the program sparked 23 Salmonella recalls, two E. coli O157:H7 recalls, and five Listeria recalls. Of the pathogens the program identified during that time, 39 Salmonella isolates were matched to human illnesses – as were the two E. coli O157:H7 and all eight Listeria isolates.

In Obama's budget request for FY 2013, the administration justified cutting MDP, calling it a "lower-priority program because it is has a low impact and is not central to the core mission of USDA, which is to facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products."

Here were just a few reasons to fully fund the MDP and not kill it:

  •    MDP was the only robust sampling program we had. That surveillance data was irreplaceable and would have been important for moving forward with the FSMA produce safety rule. Having commodity-specific surveillance data can be used by growers to tailor preventative practices.
  • MDP did sometimes spark recalls before their sell by or use by dates, which allowed retailers to pull potentially contaminated product from shelves before consumers ate it. The US$4.5 million program would have been more than worth it even if it only prevented one case of E. coli O157:H7 caused acute kidney failure – hemolytic uremic syndrome – in a child.
  • MDP had a sampling, testing, and reporting infrastructure in place that could rapidly be deployed and begin sampling and testing for outbreak related commodities within a week. It gave health officials rapid response capability. Rapid was good for consumers and good for the industry. The faster we knew what was causing an outbreak, the faster we could alert consumers and the faster the impact could be minimized to industry.
  • As many states cut their public health budgets, MDP lost resources to help build better microbiological labs. When the program was first launched in 2001, many labs were using antiquated methods. MDP introduced the labs to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and currently real time PCR. With the help of USDA funding, MDP labs were state of the art and each was ISO 17025 accredited. By continually sampling throughout the year, MDP staffs became proficient at testing and isolation of pathogens. This was more art than science and was a skill that was developed not acquired.

I guess we will never know for sure if the outcome for Dole and its consumers would have been different.  For a good overview of how the MDP died, read:  Letter From The Editor at Food Safety News: “Blood” 

This article was originally published on Bill Marler's blog, and re-published by www.freshfruitportal.com with his permission.


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