Spinach

The USDA’s Microbiological Data Program that monitors select fruits and vegetables for harmful pathogens that could lead to foodborne illnesses, is about to lose its funding, potentially putting Americans’ health at risk, reports The Washington Post.

The 11-year old program has lost its funding from the Obama administration, and Congress did not include the program in the recent agricultural spending bills. According to the Post, in 2011, “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 USDA and industry trade groups have suggested that the program, which only received $5 million in funding last year, is a better fit for the Food and Drug Administration than the Agriculture Department, but no plans have been made to proliferate the minimally funded program under any department.

In the last three years, the Microbiological Data Program discovered some 30 foodborne bacterial outbreaks leading to recalls. And, says the Post, “evidence has been mounting for at least a decade that fresh vegetables and fruit are a major source of food-borne illness. Deadly outbreaks linked to spinach and cantaloupe in recent years only underscore the risks.”

Fruits and vegetables become a high risk of cross-contamination mainly through nearby run-off from factory farms where animal waste gets into water and soil. Animal waste is a breeding ground for E. coli, salmonella, listeria and other harmful pathogens. Other factors include contamination from infected humans and contamination on processing equipment.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Stewart