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‘Unsanitary conditions’ blamed for Listeria outbreak in cantaloupes

by Tim Linden | October 20, 2011

Unsanitary conditions at Jensen Farms in Holly, CO, have been cited as the probable cause of the Listeria monocytogenes outbreak that has sickened more than 125 people and resulted in at least 25 deaths.

As a result of the outbreak, which was traced back to Jensen Farms in early September and which led to a recall of the firm’s cantaloupes, a multi-agency environmental review of the farm’s growing, packing and cooling facilities was conducted Sept. 22-23.

In separate conference calls with both the media and the produce industry on Wednesday, Oct. 19, representatives from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said that the review identified several unsanitary factors that “most likely contributed to the introduction, spread and growth of Listeria monocytogenes in the cantaloupes.”

Those factors include a faulty facility design that allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and made the equipment very difficult to clean and sanitize. A regulatory inspection of the facility on Sept. 10, when it was suspected of being the source of the problem, discovered multiple positive samples of Listeria on many different food-contact points on the washing, drying and packing equipment.

Barbara Mahon, deputy branch chief of the CDC, said that there is much to learn from the outbreak, including the identification of cantaloupe as a carrier of Listeria for the first time ever. She praised the work of the various agencies involved in the review and said that the goal now is to establish protocols so this does not happen again.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that the agency will use the outbreak “to establish prevention as the cornerstone for food safety.”

Both Dr. Mahon and Jim Gorny, the FDA’s senior adviser for produce safety, called the situation at Jensen Farms “unique” and not indicative of general practices at cantaloupe-packing facilities that they have seen. The government representatives said that while Jensen Farms was a registered packing facility, as required by law, and subject to government inspection, no inspection had been conducted since it registered in July 2010.

A third-party food-safety audit gave the farm and its facilities a clean bill of health in August, either during or shortly before the outbreak was occurring, and during the conference call one media member questioned the validity of third-party audits.

The government representatives said that currently third-party audits are not always up to government standards, but they indicated that government accreditation of third-party auditors would be a part of the new federal food-safety law.

Dr. Mahon said that it will be at least two weeks before the outbreak can be declared over due to the long incubation period for Listeria illnesses. The cantaloupes were recalled from the marketplace in mid-September, but consumption could have continued until the end of that month, with illnesses showing up as long as two months later.

Bill Marler, a prominent Seattle-based attorney known for his involvement in food-safety litigation, has filed seven lawsuits and currently represents at least two dozen individuals or families of people who have become sick or have died because of the outbreak.

Mr. Marler told The Produce News that at the end of the day, this will be one of the larger food-safety settlements ever, and certainly will be the largest in the fresh produce industry.

He estimated that settlements will reach $125 million to $150 million, and he speculated that many companies along the supply chain will have to get involved to settle these cases or will be drawn into court trials.

Mr. Marler said that Jensen Farms is clearly culpable, but he added that the distributor of the cantaloupes as well as retailers and the third-party auditor could all be brought into the case.

At least 25 retailers sold the product to consumers, including some of the nation’s larger and better-known chains.

Mr. Marler said that the favorable third-party audit will have little impact since company-paid audits offer little protection in all manufacturing, including the food industry. The audit, he said, “is like having a small sheet [for protection] on a cold winter night; it’s not a big warm blanket.”

The attorney, who made a name for himself during the E. coli outbreak nearly 20 years ago that was tied to the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain, expects retailers to come forward to settle these cases. He said that is a common occurrence when the source of a problem is a small operation with little money.

Mr. Marler cited a current case in which he is involved in which 40 people became ill from eating raw milk cheese. He said that the retailer has settled most of those cases because the farm involved was small and had no assets.