(Nov. 5) With the first public release of data expected by next year, the Microbiological Data Program is drawing plenty of attention from industry leaders who still wonder whether it will muddle the public’s perception of produce safety.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced a Nov. 20 public meeting for industry input regarding the $6 million MDP program, established at the behest of Congress to develop a monitoring program for foodborne pathogens and indicator organisms on domestic and imported fruits and vegetables.

The USDA stresses that MDP is a voluntary data gathering program and not a regulatory or enforcement program. However, some industry leaders wonder whether the media will sensationalize the program’s findings.

In a meeting Sept. 4, the 23-member Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee, appointed by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman in February, voted to urge the USDA to suspend the MDP until its purpose and methods were better defined. At the time, the committee cited lingering concerns about the objective of the program, the risk basis for choosing produce items and the validity of the process for collecting samples.

However, USDA officials note the program could help the industry by showing that contamination levels are extremely low.

Bob Epstein, deputy administrator of science and technology programs, said the five commodities in the MDP program are romaine and leaf lettuce, tomatoes, celery and cantaloupe. MDP tests for salmonella and E. coli, he noted.

The USDA said the proposed agenda includes discussions of the program and its status, MDP sampling and testing methodology, an annual MDP summary and recommendations and concerns.