Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak Blamed on Dirty Equipment

Dirty equipment is being blamed for the deadly Jensen cantaloupe <"">Listeria outbreak that has killed 25 people, sickened 123, and spans 25 states. The outbreak is considered one of the worst in American history, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and involves four strains of the dangerous and deadly Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.

Four illnesses involved in this outbreak involved pregnant women, who are the most susceptible to the Listeria monocytogenes pathogen. Three women became ill while pregnant, one suffered a miscarriage; one newborn was diagnosed with listeriosis.

While the cases appear to be slowing down, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official said that is still too soon to declare the outbreak over, said CNN. “The peak in illnesses appears to have occurred from late August until the middle of September,” said Dr. Barbara Mahon of the CDC, wrote CNN. According to Dr. Mahon, monitoring is necessary for another two weeks. The incubation period for listeriosis can be as long as two months.

Although the FDA could not identify the exact cause of the outbreak, it did cite violations in sanitary conditions that require resolution, according to its letter to Granada Colorado’s Jensen Farms, said CNN. The FDA letter also indicated that tests revealed “widespread contamination throughout your facility and indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility.” One probable cause, said the FDA, was packing equipment that “was not easily cleaned and sanitized” as well as washing and drying equipment and other raw agricultural commodities, CNN reported.

As we’ve mentioned, cantaloupe are harvested from the field and moved to a packing shed for washing prior to shipping; moisture could be a culprit in the massive outbreak. According to the farm’s owners, the packing facility, now considered the deadly outbreak’s point of origin, is cleaned routinely; the owners maintain that they don’t know how Listeria ended up on equipment there, said KKTV previously.

The FDA said in a statement that the facility lacked a “pre-cooling step” meant to remove field heat from the produce prior to cold storage, said CNN. This could have caused condensation during the cooling process that promoted Listeria monocytogenes growth, CNN explained. Of note, the Listeria pathogen tends to thrive in cold conditions.

The FDA letter to Jensen Farms also stated that, “These positive swabs were taken from different locations throughout the washing and packing areas in your facility, all of which were either food contact surfaces or areas adjacent to food contact surfaces…. This significant percentage of swabs that tested positive for outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes demonstrates widespread contamination throughout your facility and indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility,” CNN reported. Jensen Farms has 15 days to document how it will correct the problems.

Jensen Farms has agreed to an FDA inspection of its growing, packaging, and cold storage operations prior to resuming food harvesting, packaging, or processing, and has also agreed to correct all “objectionable observations” revealed during the FDA inspections, said CNN, citing the FDA letter.

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