Listeria Cantaloupe Producer Ignored FDA Guidelines

The Listeria cantaloupe outbreak that killed 30 people and sickened 146 originated with a cantaloupe producer that ignored U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also noted that 142 people required hospitalization and one woman suffered a miscarriage in the outbreak that affected 28 states and involved four different Listeria monocytogenes strains.

A Congressional investigation just found that the massive outbreak might have been avoided had Jensen Farms followed U.S. guidelines that say fruit should be washed in chlorinated water, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado, also did not have new, FDA-recommended processing equipment, said the report just issued by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Although the agency does oversee produce, no specific regulations are in place for cantaloupe processing, an area for which the FDA only offers guidance, said the Committee, in its report. The FDA also does not have the authority to close down a facility for violations and does not regulate farm-hired auditors who certify facilities comply with good safety practices, noted the AP. One month prior to illnesses, Jensen Farms safety practices were graded “superior” by an independent auditor, the AP noted.

“The committee will continue to monitor upcoming examinations of the Listeria outbreak and related proposals to help prevent another tragedy,” Representative Fred Upton (Michigan-Republican), the Committee’s chairman, said in a statement, the AP reported. Jensen Farms representatives did not immediately comment to the AP.

As we’ve written, in addition to the one pregnant woman who suffered a miscarriage as a result of Listeria poisoning, four illnesses involved pregnant women, and one newborn was diagnosed with listeriosis, the infection caused by the Listeria pathogen. Also, the family of an 89-year-old Texas woman filed a negligence lawsuit against Jensen Farms, alleging her death was the result of consuming Listeria-tainted Jensen Cantaloupe. Frontera Produce Ltd. was named in the lawsuit. The AP wrote that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is just one of the grocers facing a lawsuit alleging it sold tainted produce; Costco Wholesale Corp. is in the process of creating new safety protocols.

The outbreak could lead to criminal charges, with the farm’s owners potentially facing prosecution. Federal prosecutors are looking for evidence of willful negligence so that the cases can be elevated to felony status charges worthy of pursuing, say legal analysts. To prove a felony, knowledge of danger must be proven.

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.”

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