It was reported late last month that unsanitary conditions at the packing plant that handled fresh cantaloupes from the Jensen farm in Colorado likely contributed to one of the deadliest listeria outbreaks in U.S. history. Thus far the most lethal outbreak of the foodborne bacteria in more than two decades has killed at least 25 people and sickened 123 others, according to health regulators. The FDA reported that the design of the packing plant allowed water to collect in pools and made it difficult to clean and sanitize the facility. The firm was packing cantaloupes under “unsanitary conditions where they may have become adulterated,” according to Sherri McGarry, a senior adviser at the FDA’s Office of Foods. The packing plant is part of Jensen Farms, the source of the tainted melons that were first investigated in late August and have infected people in 26 states.
Prior to this outbreak, the plant had not been inspected by the FDA since it was registered in July of 2010. That’s difficult to justify. Listeria monocytogenes is a frequent cause of U.S. food recalls in processed meats and cheeses, but contamination in fresh produce is a new and disturbing development. Perhaps timely inspections would have headed off the listeria problem.
Listeria is present in many parts of the agricultural environment, from decaying vegetation to the fields where food is grown. But it rarely causes serious illness. The organism needs to get on food and grow to levels where it can cause disease. Since it can grow at low temperatures, that can happen anywhere along the food chain. Both the FDA and Jensen Farms have said this packing facility won’t distribute any more food until the agency deemed it safe. Since the growing season is over the facility is not currently open.
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