Following a headline-making deadly Listeria outbreak last year, Colorado cantaloupes have returned and cantaloupe growers are working hard to regain their consumer base.
The massive Listeria poisoning outbreak spanned 28 states in what a Congressional committee described as the “deadliest food-borne occurrence in 25 years.” According to the Congressional report, 146 people were affected by the bacterial listeriosis infection; one woman suffered a miscarriage. In addition to the one pregnant woman suffering a miscarriage, four illnesses involved pregnant women, and one newborn was diagnosed with listeriosis, the infection caused by the Listeria pathogen.
As we’ve written, this Listeria outbreak originated with Jensen Farms having ignored U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines and involved four different Listeria monocytogenes strains. The Congressional investigation revealed that the massive outbreak might have been avoided had Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado, followed U.S. guidelines that say fruit should be washed in chlorinated water. Jensen Farms also did not have new, FDA-recommended processing equipment, said the House Energy and Commerce Committee report.
Jensen Farms filed for bankruptcy following the deadly outbreak that linked its cantaloupe with more than 30 deaths and at least 142 hospitalizations. Investigators with the FDA indicated that Jensen Farms neglected to store its cantaloupes properly after the produce was harvested and stopped chlorinating the water it used to wash the melons, which was what which allowed the Listeria bacteria to thrive. The outbreak could lead to criminal charges and the farm’s owners could face prosecution.
Since the historic outbreak, Colorado melon growers, near Rocky Ford, have trademarked a type of cantaloupe—the Rocky Ford melon—and spent $800,000 on safety upgrades to ensure future outbreaks are stopped in an effort to prove to consumers that their fruit is safe, said The Associated Press (AP). The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Service Agency said that about one-third of the land meant for cantaloupes is being used for the fruit and some long-term cantaloupe farmers have sopped growing Rocky Fords this year, said the AP.
A number of lawsuits have been filed including a lawsuit filed by the family of an 89-year-old Texas woman who allege her death was the result of consuming Listeria-tainted Jensen Cantaloupe. Frontera Produce Ltd. was also named in that lawsuit.
We previously explained that dirty equipment and unsanitary conditions and practices have been blamed for contaminating whole or pre-cut Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms. Although the FDA could not identify the outbreak’s exact cause, it cited violations in sanitary conditions, writing 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.”