Federal food safety program to end in Minn.

State agriculture officials are phasing out a federally funded program that allows them to test produce for things like E.coli and salmonella.

The USDA Microbiological Data Program had worked in 11 states, including Minnesota, with an annual budget of about $4.5 million. Congress decided not to fund it in 2013, so USDA officials has asked states to stop taking new samples so that the program can shut down by Dec. 31.

Heidi Kassenborg, who directs the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's Dairy and Food Inspection Division, said the program has played an important role in catching disease-causing pathogens in produce.

For example, the program recently found salmonella contamination in grape tomatoes, she said.

"That was a recent example, but then there have been more that were isolated in our laboratory throughout the years," she said. "By finding it in the product and pulling it out of the market, then you're preventing illness."

Kassenborg said under the Microbiological Data Program, samples were taken twice per month of certain produce commodities from a wholesale distributor. Some produce sampling and testing will continue under a broader marketplace program that tests all kinds of food products, but that program is conducted quarterly, so the sampling frequency of produce will go down considerably, she said.

"That sort of targeted sampling is going to be gone. We'll continue to test food, but produce won't be getting the scrutiny like it would have under the Microbiological Data Program," Kassenborg said.

Minnesota Department of Agriculture spokesman Mike Schommer said the USDA had provided $280,000 to the state as part of the program to fund salaries and lab operations.

Officials from the Food and Drug Administration and USDA are discussing the program's options for the future.

Food safety advocates are urging Congress to reinstate the program. According to research published by food safety law firm Marler Clark LLP, at least 30 recalls have resulted from the program's data collection.

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(MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.)

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