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July 13, 2012

Produce-safety testing program on chopping block

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Last year, a USDA advisory group made up of industry representatives urged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to stop using the program — which currently tests seven commodities, including cantaloupe, lettuce and spinach — as a way of initiating recalls.

The industry says the program is not designed to prevent food-borne illnesses and in fact doesn't do so. The products are sampled by state laboratories close to the end of their shelf life, said David Gombas, a senior vice president at United Fresh Produce Association, an industry trade group. By the time the samples are collected and tested and the results are forwarded to the FDA, nearly all the produce is out of circulation by the time the FDA initiates a recall.

"It is not designed to get the product out of consumers' hands," Gombas said. "And none of the product recalled has ever been traced to an outbreak."

United Fresh Produce and the Produce Marketing Association, another major industry trade group, also say the program does not determine where the contamination occurred and therefore does not provide lessons to government or industry about better practices. The industry groups say they'd rather see the program at the FDA, which already does its own produce testing.

But an analysis by Food Safety News, an industry trade publication, found that the cash-strapped agency pulled on average 80 percent fewer fresh produce samples for testing from 2009 to 2012 than the program, which pulls roughly 15,000 samples or more a year.

Mike Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said the program was a solid source of information. "I'm not going to pretend we're glad the program is going away . . . but there's so much more that goes into ensuring the safety of produce."

The House and Senate have yet to vote on the final agriculture spending bills.

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