Wednesday July 18, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The Agriculture Depart ment grudgingly extended the life of the nation's main produce-safety testing program, just as the initiative was slated to be shut down.

The tiny Microbiological Data Program extensively screens high-risk fresh fruits and vegetables every year for bacteria including salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

It was at risk of being scrapped after President Obama's proposed budget slashed the effort's funding, but USDA spokesman Justin DeJong said Monday the program will continue operating through December.

"While the Microbiological Data Program does not align with USDA's core mission, the department will continue its work with state partners using existing agreements to conduct sampling and testing through this program through the end of the year," he said in a statement.

Public health officials and food safety advocates have argued that getting rid of the program would leave the country without a crucial tool used to investigate deadly foodborne illness outbreaks.