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WASHINGTON — Federal inspectors found the outbreak strains of Salmonella in cantaloupe and in the packinghouse of Owensville, IN-based Chamberlain Farms, the firm tied to an outbreak that sickened 261 people and led to three deaths last year, the Food & Drug Administration said in a Dec. 14 warning letter.

The FDA warning letter came after FDA inspected the produce packinghouse and growing fields from Aug. 14-31 and returned for another field inspection Sept. 19-21.

On Aug. 16, inspectors found one subsample of cantaloupes from the packinghouse that matched the outbreak strain of Salmonella Newport. On the next day, FDA found the same Salmonella strain in a sample collected from a distributor, and during the inspection it found Salmonella Newport in seven of the 50 environmental swabs from food contact surfaces in the packinghouse.

When investigators returned for the second field inspection, they found Salmonella-positive samples from fields separated by more than a mile.

"FDA does not expect melons to be grown in a Salmonella-free environment; however, these findings suggest a source of contamination that is widespread and not consistent with background contamination," the agency said.

FDA listed conditions inspectors found at the plant that may have contributed to product contamination, including organic material on the cantaloupe conveyer, debris beneath the conveyer belt, standing water on the floor of the packinghouse below conveyer belts and on the drip table, bird excrement in the rafters and a sloping roof that can allow water to flow onto the brush washer and conveyor belt.

Also, materials may not have been cleaned properly as Salmonella was found in the carpet at the end of the middle grading table and the company did not cap some wellheads that were found to harbor coliforms and Escherichia coli, FDA said.

Another finding is that the firm did not conduct pre-cooling of melons after harvest, which may allow for pathogens on the rind surface.

"Based on all of these sample results, we have determined that the cantaloupes in your packinghouse are adulterated," FDA said in the warning letter. Chamberlain Farms had 15 days to respond to FDA's Dec. 14 warning letter with the specific steps taken to correct the violations and to prevent future problems.