Bloomberg News

FDA Links Cantaloupe Outbreak to ‘Poor Sanitary Practices’

October 19, 2011

(Updates with health agency comment in fourth paragraph.)

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Health inspectors found widespread contamination and “poor sanitary practices” at the Colorado farm that produced tainted cantaloupes linked to the deadliest U.S. foodborne illness outbreak in more than a quarter-century.

A packing facility owned by Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado, tested positive for the strains of listeria that have sickened 123 people in 26 states, killing 25, the Food and Drug Administration told the company in a warning letter posted today on the agency’s website.

The outbreak prompted Jensen Farms to recall the contaminated fruit on Sept. 14. The tainted melons have caused more deaths than any foodborne illness in the last 25 years, Barbara Mahon, deputy chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Enteric Disease branch, said today on a conference call.

“We need to learn everything we can from this tragic situation to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Mahon said.

A dump truck parked near the open-air packing facility is among the possible causes of the contamination, Jim Gorny, a senior adviser for produce safety at the FDA, said on the conference call. The truck had hauled misshapen cantaloupes away from the facility and dumped them at a cattle ranch.

“Cattle are definitely a reservoir” of listeria and can transmit it through their feces, Gorny said. FDA inspectors later found the truck “parked in the general proximity, right next to where food is handled,” he said.

Equipment Previously Used

Packing equipment previously used for “another raw agricultural commodity” is another possible source of the contamination, Sherri McGarry, senior adviser in the FDA’s Office of Foods, said on the conference call. The agency’s investigation of Jensen Farms remains open, she said.

Thirteen of the 39 environmental samples that FDA inspectors collected at the packing facility tested positive for the outbreak strains, the agency said in its warning letter.

The “significant percentage” of positive samples “demonstrates widespread contamination throughout your facility and indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility,” the FDA told the company in the letter.

Jensen Farms has agreed to “correct all the concerns” noted during FDA inspections, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said on the conference call.

The company didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Listeria, a bacterium found in soil and water, sickens about 1,600 people and kills about 260 in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC. Animals can carry and transmit the germ without appearing ill. Pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk from listeria infections. Symptoms include fever and diarrhea.

--Editors: Adriel Bettelheim, Chris Staiti

To contact the reporter on this story: Molly Peterson in Washington at mpeterson9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net


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