Bloomberg News

Listeria Outbreak in Cantaloupe Tied to Flawed Safety Practices

January 13, 2012

Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- A listeria outbreak that killed 30 people and sickened another 146 may have been avoided if a Colorado cantaloupe processor had followed U.S. guidelines and washed the fruit in chlorinated water, a congressional investigation found.

Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado, also lacked new processing equipment recommended by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the report issued today by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The FDA, which oversees produce, doesn’t have specific regulations for cantaloupe processing and offers only guidance, the committee said in its report. The agency can’t shut a facility for violations and doesn’t regulate auditors hired by farms to certify facilities comply with good safety practices.

“The committee will continue to monitor upcoming examinations of the listeria outbreak and related proposals to help prevent another tragedy,” Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican and the committee’s chairman, said in a statement.

Representatives of Jensen Farms didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, is among grocers facing a lawsuit claiming it sold contaminated cantaloupe. Costco Wholesale Corp. is developing new safety protocols as a result. The outbreak occurred in September and October.

‘Nothing New’

“It’s unfortunate that victims and their families weren’t involved in the congressional committee’s investigation,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer who represents clients in the Jensen Farms case, in an interview.

“There’s really nothing new that’s added,” said Marler. “It’s basically what the FDA already found.”

Widespread contamination and unsanitary practices were found at a packing facility owned by the company, the FDA said in an Oct. 18 warning letter.

Jensen Farms was graded by an independent auditor as having a “superior” safety practices just one month before consumers became ill from eating the fruit.

“FDA officials stated that the outbreak could likely have been prevented if Jensen Farms had maintained its facilities in accordance with exiting FDA guidance,” according to the House panel’s report.

--Editors: Adriel Bettelheim, Andrew Pollack

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Armour in Washington at sarmour@bloomberg.net

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


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