(Feb. 12) The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s controversial Microbiological Data Program is expected to release its first report in May, but not before the USDA gathers input from industry and interested groups about how to present the information.

The program has attracted concern from the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C., and other produce industry groups for two years. Congress funded the program at slightly more than $6 million per year to provide a “real world” benchmark on a handful of commodities to gauge the microbiological hazards to fresh produce. The MDP program tests romaine lettuce, leaf lettuce, tomatoes, celery and cantaloupe for pathogenic E. coli and salmonella. There are also plans to test for shigella in the future.

Bob Epstein, deputy administrator of science and technology programs for the USDA, said in January that the USDA’s fruit and vegetable advisory committee — appointed by Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman last year — would be one group that will be involved in reviewing the data. The next meeting of that group is scheduled for early April.

In previous meetings with members of the advisory group and a public meeting about the program in November, Epstein acknowledged there have been lingering questions about the objectives of the program.

Epstein said the system is a cost-efficient scientific reference point regarding microbiological contamination of fresh produce at the point of wholesale distribution.

“It provides a reference point of information, a combination of farm gate, storage, transportation and right into the warehouse,” he said.

While some critics have complained the system doesn’t illuminate specific steps of the food marketing chain — the produce is only tested at the warehouse or distribution center — Epstein said it would be expensive and problematic to construct a scientifically sound benchmark of microbiological testing at the farm level. For example, such a farm level system would have to include traveling to foreign fields to make it representative.

“We’ve debated it. It would be wonderful if we could do it, but that would be quite expensive to measure everything at the farm gate,” Epstein said. “It’s an issue of resources. What you would like to do and what you can do based on that you have available are two different things.”

Another question from the advisory committee, Epstein said, was whether they would be given the chance to review the 2002 data that will be released in May before the USDA publishes it. “The answer is yes. We don’t want to present anything that goes beyond the limitation of the program,” he said.

For that reason, he said the committee and other interested parties would be able to review the data and provide insight to the USDA on how it will be presented.

Even with the limitations of the study — warehouse level data collected from 10 states — Epstein said he anticipates the report will prove useful when it is released. Funding for the program is secured through 2004 and he said he believes the program is meeting the expectations of Congress.

“It’s safe to say we don’t have our budget doubled, but right now we believe we are meeting objective for baseline testing,” he said.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Pesticide Data Program, started in 1991 after the Alar and apples scare, was likewise designed to provide real world data on pesticide residues. The PDP program has been supported by the industry in recent years.

While not revealing any specifics, Epstein said in general terms that thousands of tests on produce for microbiological pathogens have revealed few positives results for the presence of pathogens, he said.