Produce sampling for pathogens done by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Microbiological Data Program is under fire.


Industry advocates say the USDA’s sampling science is not reliable or fast enough to be the basis of produce recalls and duplicates Food and Drug Administration sampling work.


Rare positive pathogen finds by the USDA program have resulted in several FDA traceback in-vestigations and voluntary recalls since a new information sharing agreement between USDA and FDA began in 2008.


Since its inception, the USDA’s program shared results of their infrequent findings of pathogens on produce to FDA in broad and generic terms. The rules changed in 2008, when the process of notification was updated to include specific information on the origin of the product sampled, said Jimmie Turner, spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.


Turner said the USDA doesn’t know how many traceback investigations have been initiated as a result of MDP test results passed on to FDA.


When the USDA program started in 2001, it sought to create a baseline for the frequency of pathogens on produce, said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.


The positive findings were not reported by shipper-of-origin and did not result in any regulatory action.


Within the past couple of years, Stenzel said, state and local officials are taking positive samples and then calling for regulatory action.


“AMS is probably not the right place to have a food safety sampling testing program,” he said. “If you are going to trigger recalls, it better be buttoned up with FDA precision.” For fiscal 2010, which ends Sept. 30, the USDA projects to perform at 56,700 tests on 18,900 samples for the presence of E. coli.