SAN FRANCISCO — The nation's largest produce-safety testing program narrowly escaped closure thanks to a last-minute grudging reprieve from the Agriculture Department, and finding a permanent solution to keep tainted fruits and vegetables from reaching consumers could take an even bigger effort.
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Each year, the tiny program screens thousands of produce samples. It has found more than two dozen bacteria-laced examples that prompted recalls of lettuce, tomatoes and other foods from grocery stores.
It was at risk of being scrapped after President Barack Obama's proposed budget slashed the effort's funding earlier this year. But USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said late Monday that although the Microbiological Data Program "does not align with USDA's core mission," it will operate through December, using existing agreements with states to keep testing for salmonella, E. coli and listeria over the next six months.
Public health officials and food safety advocates have long argued that getting rid of the program would leave the country without a crucial tool to investigate outbreaks of deadly foodborne illnesses.
If samples test positive for bacteria, it can trigger nationwide recalls and keep contaminated produce from reaching the public.
Dr. Robert Tauxe, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's top food-germ investigator, has said the program's information can be key to pinpointing foods tied to outbreaks, and it could not easily be replaced by companies' internal tests or more modest federal sampling programs.
The CDC said contaminated fruits and vegetables caused nearly one-third of the major multistate foodborne illness outbreaks last year.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a longtime food safety advocate, said she would continue to push for the program to stay open beyond the year's end, since the House and Senate have not included any funding for it in their agriculture spending bills.
"I am glad to hear the program will continue, but a temporary reprieve is not enough," she said. "It is unacceptable for this crucial, cost-effective program to be eliminated."
Finding more money for the modest program, which cost $4.3 million to run last year, may be tough in this economic climate. The FDA is already squeezed for food safety dollars, receiving so little money for food inspections that some facilities are only inspected every five to 10 years.
In recent years, industry leaders from United Fresh Produce Association and other major trade groups have repeatedly urged the government to get rid of the USDA program, saying it has cost growers millions of dollars in produce recalls and unfairly targeted farmers who aren't responsible for contaminating the food.
They want the private sector to do more testing, rather than allowing the USDA to take random samples of fruits and vegetables at massive grocery store distribution centers, after produce has already left company control.
Ray Gilmer, a United Fresh spokesman, did not immediately comment Monday. He has said the industry supports funding the FDA to do more scientifically rigorous tests that would help monitor public health.
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