I, For One, Welcome Our Austerity Overlords: The Food Safety Edition

One key thing to remember in the midst of all of the deficit hysteria and gibberish about shared sacrifice is that the term fiscal responsibility is a cover for people to cut things they don’t like. Case in point: the Microbiological Data Program. The predicted effects of cuts in this program have finally arrived. Now we’ve lost a key surveillance program (boldface mine):

During a Food Safety News investigation last summer, it took FDA over a month to come up with testing numbers and the agency was unable to list the number of recalls sparked by the their testing program because the numbers weren’t easily captured in the agency’s data system.

State health officials argue that the surveillance MDP provided is important, even in cases where contamination is discovered after the products are off shelves, because the results shed light on an entire commodity’s food safety record.

“It’s not a preventative program,” said Kristi McCallum, the Microbiology Program Manager at the Colorado Department of Agriculture, last summer. “But this is the only program that does surveillance testing for produce.”

There is another benefits of this program:

Finally, I want to reemphasize something that’s mentioned in the article. Currently, the U.S. government tracks E. coli O157:H7, which produces the dangerous shiga toxin. But it does not track any of the other shiga toxin producing E. coli, like the German E. coli outbreak strain. If the MDP were eliminated, we would have no way to track these organisms in produce–like sprouts (which are thought to be the proximate source of the German outbreak). In 2009 discovered a new strain of shiga toxin-producing E. coli (which was then sent to the CDC for further analysis and typing). Instead, we would have to wait for an outbreak to occur. But what’s a little death and renal failure among friends?

But, as I pointed out, big ag has always opposed this program (boldface added):

This is the same kind of crap that ‘statistically significant sampling‘ is: a way force regulatory and surveillance programs to spend their limited resources on things that don’t matter. Anyone who has ever done high-throughput microbiology knows that splitting the work among multiple labs will cost more–and thus decrease monitoring. Why? If nothing else, personnel and money have to be used to coordinate the multiple labs. That’s the best case scenario. In the worst case, the different labs generate data that can’t be compared to each other, which, if you’re the one being monitored, is probably a good thing (although that’s very uncivil to mention).

It’s also clear this a way to overwhelm related surveillance programs, which are already stretched to the breaking point, by adding this burden to them.

Like I wrote at the outset, this has nothing to do with budgetary savings–it’s a paltry $4.5 million, which isn’t even a rounding error on a defense contractor’s overrun. This is all about using an ersatz fiscal crisis to kill off important tools for regulation. And, while the ag lobbyists and their Congressional hired help have been the ones leading the charge, the Obama administration has also done its part to kill this program:

One AMS official said MDP was shutting down “due to budget cuts by Congress.” While it’s true Congress didn’t request funding for MDP, the Obama administration actually did not seek funding for the program in their last budget request, calling it a “lower-priority program because it is has a low impact and is not central to the core mission of AMS, which is to facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products.”

It seems to me understanding the monitoring of foodborne pathogens through the food supply might possibly “facilitate the competitive and efficient marketing of agricultural products”, but, then again, I’m just a microbiologist, so what do I know?

By the way, that salad you plan on eating? I’m sure it’s fine….

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2 Responses to I, For One, Welcome Our Austerity Overlords: The Food Safety Edition

  1. Sideshow_Bill says:

    And wait until there is another spinach, tomato, or other contaminated food outbreak. Then the right will point out an say see, government doesn’t work

  2. Grung_e_Gene says:

    Sideshow_Bill, that is the MO of Republicans. They purposefully undermine Government bodies and when they fail they say government doesn’t work.

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