Cantaloupe Investigation: 2011's Listeria Outbreak Was Preventable

Non-governmental auditors gave offending cantaloupe farm a "superior" rating just before the most deadly outbreak in 25 years..

listeria outbreak in cantaloupe
The deadly listeria outbreak of 2011 was preventable, says the FDA. (eddie.welker/Creative Commons)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Thirty deaths and 146 illnesses could have been prevented when third-party auditors visited a cantaloupe farm in Colorado last year to assess the safety of Jensen Farms. A discerning eye could have detected that safety measures were amiss. Instead, the auditors rated the facility "superior," and what followed shortly after was the deadliest food borne illness outbreak in 25 years.

When the FDA looked into matters two months later, reports the Huffington Post, investigators discovered pools of dirty water on the floor and positive samples of listeria bacteria on equipment and fruit. The farm also had stopped using antibacterial washes and did not take measures to reduce bacteria growth after cantaloupes were brought in from the fields. But such a discovery was too little too late, highlighting a gaping hole in safety oversight in the U.S. food system.

The Huffington Post reports that third party auditors—like Primus Labs, the auditors who assessed Jensen Farms—are not overseen by the FDA, despite the fact that many retailers put their trust in such audits to ensure the food they sell is safe.

One subcontractor who audited the cantaloupe farm told the House Energy and Commerce Committee (HECC) that auditors rate facilities based on specific FDA regulations, but do not account for FDA's guidances on how to keep food safe.

Primus Labs officials told the committee that the company typically gives passing grades to the thousands of facilities it audits each year. In 2010, 98.7 percent received passing grades. In 2009, it was 97.5 percent, and in 2008, 98.1.

A bipartisan report released to the HECC Tuesday depicts the oversight problem quit lucidly, but Democrats and Republicans have squabbled over solutions. While Republicans refrained from requesting more oversight, Democrats wrote a letter to the FDA calling for a stricter policy.

In the meantime, both parties will have to put their trust in a food safety law signed last year that is intended to boost FDA inspections of facilities. Siobhan Delancey, spokeswoman for the FDA, says that the law could have made a difference in the cantaloupe listeria event.

"There are a number of elements of the proposed rule that, had Jensen Farms been in compliance, would have significantly reduced the risk of that outbreak occurring," she said.

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