07/05/2011 09:26 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2011

Microbiological Data Program, Crucial E. Coli Screening For Produce, Axed By Congress

Congress has passed a bill that would cut all funding from the Microbiological Data Program, which food safety experts call the United States' most important defense against produce-borne E. coli infection, the Chicago Tribune reports. The Microbiological Data Program was tasked with screening a broad swath of fruits and vegetables for pathogens, including salmonella, which sickened 20 Americans last week, and E. coli, which has killed dozens and infected thousands in Europe over the past month.

Representatives from the agricultural industry had been lobbying for the program to be cut for years, arguing that it led to unnecessary recalls. They also allege that the screening carried out by the Microbiological Data Program overlaps with work done by other agencies, making it a redundant expenditure. Meanwhile, food safety and consumer advocates told the Tribune that cutting the program would seriously increase the risk of future food-borne-illness outbreaks. They noted that other programs do not test as broad a sample of produce or require the MDP's level of experimental rigor.

The funding cut will require the approval of the Senate before it takes effect.