Unsanitary packing probably led to cantaloupe outbreakUnsanitary packing probably led to cantaloupe outbreakUnsanitary packing probably led to cantaloupe outbreak


Bill Sackett looks at cantaloupes that are not subject to the recent recall at his Rocky Ford, Colo., farm market. Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., about a hundred miles from Rocky Ford, has issued a recall of cantaloupe following a Listeria outbreak that has killed at least two people. (Hyoung Chang/AP)
October 19, 2011

Unsanitary conditions at a cantaloupe packing plant probably contributed to the outbreak that has killed more than two dozen people, including one in Maryland, federal regulators said Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration determined last month that Jensen Farms in Colorado was the source of the cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria, a dangerous but rare bacterium that thrives in damp and cool conditions. As the illnesses mounted, the incident became the country’s deadliest foodborne outbreak in more than 25 years.

On Wednesday, federal regulators cast blame on the farm’s off-site packing facility. They said it was poorly designed, allowing water to pool on the floors. Its equipment was difficult to clean. And its new washer and dryer system had also been used on raw potatoes. The potatoes may have then decayed, promoting Listeria growth.

In a warning letter to Jensen Farms this week, the FDA demanded that the company detail in writing how it plans to prevent a repeat of this type of outbreak. Jensen Farms, which voluntarily recalled its cantaloupe Sept. 14, has shut down its operations because the growing season is over, regulators said.

The company said in a statement that it is cooperating with the ongoing FDA investigation.

“Our operations will not resume until we are completely satisfied that we have done everything in our power to ensure the safety of our products,” the statement said.

The FDA does not know exactly how the Listeria made its way into the packing plant, said Jim Gorny, an FDA senior adviser. But investigators suggested that it might have been in the soil or on the cantaloupe at levels that were undetectable. They also said a truck that carried culled cantaloupe to a cattle farm might have driven through animal feces and dragged back Listeria on its tires. The truck was parked close to the packing facility.

“Where did it really come from? We’ll probably never know,” Gorny said.

Whatever the source, the Listeria was spread inside the facility, probably when water got splattered by employees as they walked in the area or attempted to clean it with hoses, Gorny said.

Growth of the pathogen was probably exacerbated by the farm’s failure to pre-cool the cantaloupes. The company acknowledged that it had skipped a key step that pulls the heat from cantaloupe before it is refrigerated, possibly contributing to condensation and moist surfaces that encouraged the Listeria to grow, Gorny said.

The problems with the cantaloupes captured attention in late August, when two cases of Listeria infection were reported on the same day in Colorado. State officials quickly linked the illnesses to Jensen Farms, and FDA laboratory testing confirmed those results.

The illnesses peaked in late August through mid-September, but the number of cases has waned since then, said Barbara Mahon, a deputy branch chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This week, the CDC reported that 123 people from 26 states have been sickened by the contamination.

The outbreak marked the first time a Listeria contamination has been linked to whole, fresh cantaloupes and one of the few times it has been linked to produce in general. The elderly and people with weak immune systems are the most vulnerable to serious illness from Listeria. The median age of the 25 people who have died from the outbreak is 87, the CDC said.

Unsanitary packing probably led to cantaloupe outbreak

by Dina ElBoghdady

Unsanitary conditions at a cantaloupe packing plant probably contributed to the outbreak that has killed more than two dozen people, including one in Maryland, federal regulators said Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration determined last month that Jensen Farms in Colorado was the source of the cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria, a dangerous but rare bacterium that thrives in damp and cool conditions. As the illnesses mounted, the incident became the country’s deadliest foodborne outbreak in more than 25 years.

On Wednesday, federal regulators cast blame on the farm’s off-site packing facility. They said it was poorly designed, allowing water to pool on the floors. Its equipment was difficult to clean. And its new washer and dryer system had also been used on raw potatoes. The potatoes may have then decayed, promoting Listeria growth.

In a warning letter to Jensen Farms this week, the FDA demanded that the company detail in writing how it plans to prevent a repeat of this type of outbreak. Jensen Farms, which voluntarily recalled its cantaloupe Sept. 14, has shut down its operations because the growing season is over, regulators said.

The company said in a statement that it is cooperating with the ongoing FDA investigation.

“Our operations will not resume until we are completely satisfied that we have done everything in our power to ensure the safety of our products,” the statement said.

The FDA does not know exactly how the Listeria made its way into the packing plant, said Jim Gorny, an FDA senior adviser. But investigators suggested that it might have been in the soil or on the cantaloupe at levels that were undetectable. They also said a truck that carried culled cantaloupe to a cattle farm might have driven through animal feces and dragged back Listeria on its tires. The truck was parked close to the packing facility.

“Where did it really come from? We’ll probably never know,” Gorny said.

Whatever the source, the Listeria was spread inside the facility, probably when water got splattered by employees as they walked in the area or attempted to clean it with hoses, Gorny said.

Growth of the pathogen was probably exacerbated by the farm’s failure to pre-cool the cantaloupes. The company acknowledged that it had skipped a key step that pulls the heat from cantaloupe before it is refrigerated, possibly contributing to condensation and moist surfaces that encouraged the Listeria to grow, Gorny said.

The problems with the cantaloupes captured attention in late August, when two cases of Listeria infection were reported on the same day in Colorado. State officials quickly linked the illnesses to Jensen Farms, and FDA laboratory testing confirmed those results.

The illnesses peaked in late August through mid-September, but the number of cases has waned since then, said Barbara Mahon, a deputy branch chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This week, the CDC reported that 123 people from 26 states have been sickened by the contamination.

The outbreak marked the first time a Listeria contamination has been linked to whole, fresh cantaloupes and one of the few times it has been linked to produce in general. The elderly and people with weak immune systems are the most vulnerable to serious illness from Listeria. The median age of the 25 people who have died from the outbreak is 87, the CDC said.

Unsanitary packing probably led to cantaloupe outbreak

by Dina ElBoghdady

Unsanitary conditions at a cantaloupe packing plant probably contributed to the outbreak that has killed more than two dozen people, including one in Maryland, federal regulators said Wednesday.

The Food and Drug Administration determined last month that Jensen Farms in Colorado was the source of the cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria, a dangerous but rare bacterium that thrives in damp and cool conditions. As the illnesses mounted, the incident became the country’s deadliest foodborne outbreak in more than 25 years.

On Wednesday, federal regulators cast blame on the farm’s off-site packing facility. They said it was poorly designed, allowing water to pool on the floors. Its equipment was difficult to clean. And its new washer and dryer system had also been used on raw potatoes. The potatoes may have then decayed, promoting Listeria growth.

In a warning letter to Jensen Farms this week, the FDA demanded that the company detail in writing how it plans to prevent a repeat of this type of outbreak. Jensen Farms, which voluntarily recalled its cantaloupe Sept. 14, has shut down its operations because the growing season is over, regulators said.

The company said in a statement that it is cooperating with the ongoing FDA investigation.

“Our operations will not resume until we are completely satisfied that we have done everything in our power to ensure the safety of our products,” the statement said.

The FDA does not know exactly how the Listeria made its way into the packing plant, said Jim Gorny, an FDA senior adviser. But investigators suggested that it might have been in the soil or on the cantaloupe at levels that were undetectable. They also said a truck that carried culled cantaloupe to a cattle farm might have driven through animal feces and dragged back Listeria on its tires. The truck was parked close to the packing facility.

“Where did it really come from? We’ll probably never know,” Gorny said.

Whatever the source, the Listeria was spread inside the facility, probably when water got splattered by employees as they walked in the area or attempted to clean it with hoses, Gorny said.

Growth of the pathogen was probably exacerbated by the farm’s failure to pre-cool the cantaloupes. The company acknowledged that it had skipped a key step that pulls the heat from cantaloupe before it is refrigerated, possibly contributing to condensation and moist surfaces that encouraged the Listeria to grow, Gorny said.

The problems with the cantaloupes captured attention in late August, when two cases of Listeria infection were reported on the same day in Colorado. State officials quickly linked the illnesses to Jensen Farms, and FDA laboratory testing confirmed those results.

The illnesses peaked in late August through mid-September, but the number of cases has waned since then, said Barbara Mahon, a deputy branch chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This week, the CDC reported that 123 people from 26 states have been sickened by the contamination.

The outbreak marked the first time a Listeria contamination has been linked to whole, fresh cantaloupes and one of the few times it has been linked to produce in general. The elderly and people with weak immune systems are the most vulnerable to serious illness from Listeria. The median age of the 25 people who have died from the outbreak is 87, the CDC said.

Dina ElBoghdady covers housing policy for The Washington Post.
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