Growers likely to stand alone in cantaloupe deaths case - The Packer

Growers likely to stand alone in cantaloupe deaths case

10/03/2013 04:25:00 PM
Coral Beach

Suslow said he is concerned about the signal the justice department is sending. He said he does not question the need for high standards of food safety requirements and agrees that pre-cooling and sanitizing washes are part of that for some cantaloupe, but he doesn’t believe the grower only should be liable.

“If the near-term standard for due diligence is that every farmer has a personal working knowledge to conduct a microbiological hazard analysis and operational risk assessment sufficient to prevent criminal charges if adulterated product enters the market, regardless of root-cause, we are all in big trouble,” Suslow said.

The justice department cites a number of deficiencies at the Jensens outdoor packing facility.

According to inspection reports from the Food and Drug Administration, those deficiencies include water pooling on floors, dirt and plant material on equipment, a floor that was difficult to clean, inadequate trench drains and equipment that could not be properly cleaned.

“… it is likely that the contamination occurred in the packing facility,” the FDA report states. “It is also likely that the contamination proliferated during cold storage.”

The FDA inspectors reported all samples from the growing field were negative for listeria monocytogenes. The samples included soil, wild animal excrement, perimeter and furrow drag swabs, agricultural water, pond water and cantaloupes.

In its conclusion that the Jensens cantaloupe was contaminated in the packing shed, the FDA pointed to a possible contamination source.

“Another potential means for introduction of listeria monocytogenes contamination into the packing facility was a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle (feeding) operation,” the FDA report states.

“This truck traveled to and from a cattle operation and was parked adjacent to the packing facility where the contamination may have been tracked via personnel or equipment, of through other means into the packing facility.”

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California  |  October, 04, 2013 at 10:26 AM

I'm reading many statements coming from the Justice Department and FDA which contain the words "may have", "it is likely", "possible", "potential means". Those all sound like conjecture to me. "Guessing" about a source of possible contamination without having any positive test results sounds like a witch hunt. Many lives have already been destroyed because of this outbreak. If you're going to have a solid case for prosecution, get your act together before you destroy more lives based on someone's "theory" of cantamination.

NC  |  October, 04, 2013 at 01:46 PM

I was thinking the same thing while reading this article! This sets a very scary precedent for our growers, especially when we can all think of other recent cases that seem to have included a much greater degree of negligence than this- and when they had recently passed an audit!

Coral Beach    
October, 07, 2013 at 06:27 PM

Colleen, Please note: There were numerous positive test results for listeria in the Jensens' packing facility, on equipment there and on cantaloupe in the packing facility, according to the FDA's inspection report. The listeria strains found in the Jensens' facility, on the equipment and on the cantaloupe matched the outbreak strains of the sick and dead people. Coral Beach, staff writer

California  |  October, 04, 2013 at 10:48 AM

How is it that this case gets criminal charges, but not the Peanut Corp recall that resulted in 9 deaths when product in that case tested positive for salmonella before it was shipped and then it was shipped anyway?

Illinios  |  October, 04, 2013 at 10:50 AM

Once again too many growers and packers evade the real questions as to what we are you doing to reduce the chances of contamination and save lives. It would be refreshing for more of us to discuss the actual process, science, human/environmental impact, and technological advances we are incorporating. Many of the best practice solutions incorporated in other parts of the world are clearly proven and inexpensive. Like ozone sanitation replacing chlorine or some other chemical disinfectant and track and trace software. If we as an industry don’t quickly adapt by becoming more safety conscious and transparent, we should expect more criminal charges and increased governmental intervention. It’s up to us and the time is now.

McAllen, TX  |  October, 04, 2013 at 11:14 AM

I pretend not to be an expert in food safety but believe the consumers have a responsibility to sanitize the produce before we consume it. I have had conversations with some FDA representatives in which I have pointed out that by far the largest cross contamination source are the shoppers not the growers and the response I received was a shrug of the shoulders. We all touch the fresh produce when selecting it. How can we hold anyone in food supply accountable when we know there is a possibility that produce may be contaminated. As consumers we have a responsibility to sanitize our fresh produce before we consume it. Even if a grower follows all the food safety precautions there will always be a risk of contamination.

October, 04, 2013 at 12:05 PM

Lawyers. Between the ambulance chasers who claim to be helping the public while lining their pockets with million$ and government lawyers (like regular government employees like the IRS aren't bad enough), we might could end up importing all of our fresh food because no one will dare produce it here. Tort reform is needed for more than just the medical industry. It's affecting us all.

california  |  October, 04, 2013 at 12:27 PM

What about any shipper that field packs cantaloupes or tomatoes, then cools and ships them without washing them????? If there is salmonella or ecoli......they are now murders in the eyes of the law if death results. What about any retail store that stocks any produce they know not to be washed and sanitized by the shippers???? Are the accessories to the crime of murder?????

Maurie Thomas    
October, 04, 2013 at 01:49 PM

I totally agree with Mike that company heads knowlingly sending contaminated product (peanut products) into the homes of consumers are criminals.

NC  |  October, 04, 2013 at 01:50 PM

RR- the consumer can not always wash away contamination. In the case of canteloupes and in fact all cucurbits, they can continue to absorb water through the cut for hours after the fruit has been removed from the vine. If put in contaminated wash water, the melon can absorb the contamination, which is then trapped INSIDE the melon. How can the consumer wash that away? They can't.

Illinois  |  October, 04, 2013 at 03:21 PM

I understand the fear of prosecution being exposed here, but come on?!! You didn't see this coming? GAP has been around for a decade. Certainly I question why Primus isn't involved in the litigation here. But you don't have to be an expert to know that, as a grower, you have to do due diligence with regard to the safety of the product you are introducing to the market. They had the capacity to use a chlorine wash on melons, which have a rough surface and are susceptible to contamination anywhere along the line from field to plate. I feel bad for them, but I think it sounds like there was real neglect here, by the growers and the GAP contractor. This isn't about every possible risk that could possibly happen to a grower. Its about something that could have been easily observed and addressed by anyone who has followed the trend toward food safety and better GAP practices in produce operations. I think this is a wake up call to growers, packers and distributors of produce that you must handle food safely. Its not an option. The cost will get higher if this keeps happening. Best to have been found doing an exemplary job of trying to prevent food contamination, than getting exposed for poor practices in your food production enterprise, with people dying as a result. It IS a big deal.

Florida  |  October, 07, 2013 at 03:38 PM

Scott, Are you joking? Ozone has not been clearly validated for cantaloupe. Open channel/dump tanks/flumes are obviously a bad choice for cantaloupe, when only using chlorine in the actual water. Even with Accutab type system, it still it is not safe enough. Though also applying Chlorine Dioxide via a spray bar provides superior protection, or a spray bar system alone with dry dumping onto conveyor. Chlorine Dioxide as a spray bar set up will maximize food safety and minimize contamination. We need more research from UC DAVIS or UF to tell us what is effective. We know what does not work, the question is what does the best sanitation job. Finally we must look at the most basic questions, is field pack the only safe way to produce cantaloupe and are eastern varieties safe enough to continue to grow? Research that suggest a 2log increase in bacteria after packing in a packing shed is a major issue, and the quick decomposition of eastern cantaloupe is another.

Florida  |  October, 07, 2013 at 03:44 PM

Flutterby, Not only through the cut, the entire surface is absorbent. In a dump tank a cantaloupe can increase its weight by up to 1/2 of a #. That is a considerable amount of water trapped in the melon. Regardless, the consumer sink is probably the most dirt place in their home, and is the last place the melon should go.

Coral Beach    
The Packer newsroom  |  October, 07, 2013 at 06:40 PM

Mike, Please note: Principals and several employees of the Peanut Corp. of America are each facing more than 60 federal criminal charges. Coral Beach, staff writer

NC  |  October, 11, 2013 at 12:21 PM

Consumers cannot be given the entire responsibility of sanitizing their fresh produce, because you cannot sanitize produce. How do you propose the average customer should go about 'sanitizing' something like cantaloupe? The surface of the rind is so rough that even with chlorine wash and a scrub brush you can not sanitize the surface. All those ridges provide a nice sanctuary from chemicals and scrubbing. Furthermore, these cantaloupe tested positive for the same strain of listeria that was found in the people involved in the outbreak, and they were tested at the farm before customers could get their hands on them. What data are you basing your assumption that the largest contamination source is the shoppers not the growers?

Florida  |  October, 14, 2013 at 09:05 AM

Correct me if I am wrong, it is my understanding environmental sampling both food contact and non-food contact was the "smoking gun" for investigators. I am not aware that cantaloupe on the farm was positive for that strain of listeria. This is hardly important considering that strain some how was able to cross from the field to the packing facility become "hardened" in the facility and contaminated cantaloupe that was sent to market. Concerning your point, the case others are making is the industry is instructed to treat cantaloupe one way, and consumers with "dirty" hands rummage through the cantaloupe bin/box.

Coral Beach    
October, 14, 2013 at 04:05 PM

Josh, According to the FDA report, cantaloupe tested on the premises -- in the Jensen Farms packing facility -- tested positive for the outbreak strains. These whole cantaloupes were positive for the outbreak strain of listeria before they left the Jensen facility, so in that regard, you are wrong because cantaloupe from the farm did test positive before it entered the stream of commerce. Coral Beach, staff writer

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