Budget Cuts Threaten Bacteria Testing

Just months after a deadly listeria outbreak that claimed the lives of over 20 people nationwide, proposed budget cuts could eliminate one of the only federal programs tasked with monitoring bacteria in food products, leaving the public vulnerable to further instances of foodborne illness.

In the midst of austerity hysteria, congressional leaders and President Barack Obama are scrambling to find ways to trim federal spending and reduce the budget deficit. The agriculture sector and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found themselves on the business end of these budget cuts and are currently facing over $30 billion in spending reductions, the elimination of direct farm payments, and significant reductions to conservation and nutrition programs.

In addition to these program reductions, the budget cuts could eliminate the USDA’s Microbiological Data Program, which screens high-risk produce for bacterial contamination. If samples test positive, the MDP can trigger a recall, preventing consumers from ingesting tainted food. Currently, the MDP is the federal government’s only program that regularly tests foods for deadly pathogens.

The proposed elimination has deeply worried food-safety advocacy groups. The potential cut comes only months after a deadly listeria outbreak, originating from a Colorado cantaloupe farm, killed 25 people, one of the deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in recent history. The importance of organizations monitoring and regulating high-risk foods is crucial, many activists say. According to the head of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety, “[the MDP is] the radar gun that keeps the industry honest and if that’s eliminated, we don’t have a program that will keep the industry in check.”

USDA officials, however, say that other federal and state programs can more efficiently monitor food safety and combat foodborne pathogens.

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Written by: Justin Ellison / Farm Plus Staff Writer