Deadliest listeria outbreak in 15 years tied to packing shed

So far, 25 people have died as a result of a listeria monocytogenes outbreak linked to Rocky Ford mellons produced by Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., reports FoxNews. This is the deadliest known case of foodborne illness in the U.S. in more than 25 years, in fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said more than 125 people have been sickened across 26 states, including the deaths. Those who died ranged in age between 48 and 96, with a median age of 87.

 

Contaminated melons, which were recalled in September, should be off store shelves by now, but symptoms of listeria -- fever, muscle aches, stiff neck, confusion and diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems -- can take up to two months to appear. The government will continue to monitor the situation. More people could still die, according to the CDC.

 

FDA's report issued on Wednesday cited multiple problems, which could explain how listeria entered the farm's packing shed. Pools of water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment at the farm's cantaloupe packing facility were probably to blame for the outbreak, reports USA Today. Government investigators found positive samples of listeria bacteria on equipment in the Jensen Farms packing facility and on fruit held there. In a six-page assessment of the conditions at the farm based on investigators' visits in late September, the FDA said Jensen Farms had recently purchased used equipment that was corroded, dirty and hard to clean. A truck that frequently hauled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked near the packing house. The packing facility floors were constructed so they were hard to clean, as pools of water potentially harboring the bacteria formed close to the packing equipment. The equipment - purchased in July, the same month the outbreak started - was previously used for a different agricultural commodity, the agency said, and the listeria "could have been introduced as a result of past use of the equipment," according to the report. Even more damning, the farm did not use a process called "pre-cooling" that is designed to remove some condensation, which creates moist conditions on the cantaloupe rind that are ideal for listeria bacteria growth. Listeria grows in cool conditions, unlike most pathogens. And an audit done by Primus Labs in August 2010 found the farm previously employed a system to wash and cool the melsons that used recirculated water treated with an anti-microbial to kill bacteria, but noted it no longer used an anti-microbial solution. Trevor Suslow, an expert on the post-harvest handling of produce at the University of California-Davis, said he was rendered "speechless" that untreated water was being used.

The FDA said that samples of cantaloupes in Jensen Farms' fields were negative for listeria, but bacteria coming off the field may have initially introduced the pathogen into the open-air packing house, where it then spread. Listeria contamination often comes from animal feces or decaying vegetation.

 

FDA officials said Wednesday that the agency has never visited the farm to do an inspection, but that would likely change under a new food safety law signed by President Obama earlier this year that boosts the number of inspections the FDA conducts annually. Currently, the agency may only visit a food facility every five or 10 years at the most.

FDA officials said they have visited many food facilities over the years and the conditions at Jensen Farms were unique.

 

"There is no reason to believe these practices are indicative of practices throughout the industry," said Sherri McGarry, a senior officer in FDA's office of foods. McGarry said the agency has sent the company a warning letter and is still considering what enforcement actions it will take. Officials said the farm had cooperated in all aspects of the recall and investigation.

Jensen Farms did not comment on the FoxNews story. What could they possibly say in their defense?