One of the quickest ways to cripple a nation is to damage its food supply.
Under President Obama's proposed budget, the nation's only federal program that regularly tests produce for things that can kill us is eliminated.
The government's tests admittedly are limited, but they're still the best tool to track outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
While a few days may seem like an agonizing wait to figure out why people are getting sick or dying, especially if the cause is from something we have sitting in our refrigerators, that's the best we have.
Never miss a local story.
And Obama's budget would eliminate it.
The U.S Department of Agriculture's Microbiological Data Program exists to screen high-risk produce, searching for signs of salmonella, E. coli, listeria and other deadly bacteria.
Food safety experts say there's nothing that could replace the government's testing program. "It's the radar gun that keeps the food industry honest and if that's eliminated, we don't have a program that will keep the industry in check," said one noted food safety expert. "This is really important because you and I eat that food and we don't want to get sick."
Just last year, the program found lettuce and spinach contaminated with E. coli. It also targeted cantaloupe after the nation's deadliest foodborne illness outbreak. Thirty people died after eating melons polluted with listeria.
In addition to the headline-grabbing outbreaks that sicken or kill many people, the agency also does routine testing of sprouts, tomatoes, cantaloupe and cilantro.
The agency's sampling program has provided public health officials with important data when they are trying to pinpoint the source of an outbreak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly one-third of the major food-borne illness outbreaks last year were caused by tainted produce.
Without the federal government's testing program, it would be up to the produce industry and other state and federal efforts to monitor food safety.
The White House says the $5 million per year program was cut because it was decided it had limited effect. But that sure doesn't seem to be the case when you listen to folks from the CDC or the Food & Drug Administration, folks who ought to be guiding the administration's food safety policy.
The White House also says the program is not a good fit within the Agricultural Marketing Service, which receives money from fees charged to produce growers.
Produce industry leaders have pushed for the program's demise, saying it sometimes unfairly blames farmers for food that was tainted after it left their control.
So who will be the watchdog when it comes to fresh produce? The United Fresh Produce Association thinks the testing should be handled by the private sector. And the CDC says testing produce is not part of its mission, so that agency won't be picking up the slack, either.
State agencies are already strained with governments tightening their belts and laying off staff, so it's unlikely they can take the helm. The FDA is so strapped it is only inspecting some food facilities every five to 10 years.
No agency is offering to take the lead. We know that testing alone won't guarantee that produce is safe for consumption. But it's better than nothing.
While it's true the industry would be wise to police itself -- preventing damage to long-term sales of certain types of produce and the cost of recalling categories of produce -- that kind of testing isn't adequate.
The MDP testing division saves lives. Congress needs to restore its funding.