Fields at Chamberlain Farm Produce tested positive for salmonella — and showed signs of wildlife activity — likely causing the initial contamination of cantaloupe linked to a deadly outbreak in 2012, according to federal officials.

The company’s failure to use basic food safety practices at an outdoor packing shed then likely caused cross contamination and led to further pathogen growth, according to a Food and Drug Administration environmental assessment released March 1.

Owner Tim Chamberlain has consistently denied the operation was the source of the contamination, including a statement in January from his attorney, Gary Zhao.

Zhao did not immediately respond to a request for comment on March 4.

Chamberlain said in the January statement that he had an independent microbiologist investigate the situation. He has said he will not grow cantaloupe for the 2013 season.

FDA confirms cantaloupe fields, shed contaminatedChamberlain contends the salmonella responsible for the 2012 outbreak “was present on surrounding lands and ... the source of the bacterial contamination was not (his) packing facilities, equipment or operations.”

In the March 1 report — — FDA investigators confirmed that multiple types of salmonella and other pathogens were found in Chamberlain’s fields, packing shed and water.

The FDA has not revealed what distributors and retailers received cantaloupe from the Owensville, Ind., farm in July and August 2012. However, the March 1 report states “29 consignees in eight states” received 222,000 cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farm.

The salmonella outbreak linked to the company’s cantaloupe killed three people in Kentucky and sickened 261 people in 24 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Similar problems

Many of the problems cited at Chamberlain Farm echoed bad practices the FDA reported in an investigation of Jensen Farms, Holly, Colo. That farm’s cantaloupes were linked to a 28-state listeria outbreak in 2011 that sickened 147 and killed 33.

Both the Jensen and Chamberlain packing sheds were outdoors and had equipment that could not be properly cleaned, according to the FDA. Equipment at both sheds had buildups of “filth” the FDA reported. The floors of both sheds allowed water to pool, providing a breeding ground for pathogens.

Both operations also failed to properly pre-cool cantaloupe, according to the FDA. The Chamberlain packing shed had evidence of birds roosting above packing equipment and bird droppings throughout the shed, the FDA reported.

Inspectors question water practices

FDA inspectors noted that the agricultural water Chamberlain Farm used during growing, harvesting and packing “may not have been of adequate quality and therefore cannot be eliminated as a potential contributor in the spread of salmonella contamination.”

The FDA also found problems with a well that provided water for Chamberlain Farm’s greenhouse where cantaloupe seedlings were grown. The agency cited problems with other wells used for irrigation and packinghouse water.

The well water did not test positive for salmonella, but it did have E. coli and coliform. According to the March 1 FDA report, “it is unusual to note indicators of fecal contamination to be recovered from ground water sources.”

Chamberlain told FDA investigators he did not use any irrigation on one of his four cantaloupe fields. The investigators questioned that statement.

“This is extraordinary given the water use demands typically required to commercially produce cantaloupe and watermelon, particularly given the extreme heat and drought conditions which occurred in Southwest Indiana during the summer growing season of 2012,” according to the FDA report.

The FDA reported Chamberlain did not have written food safety procedures or documents about monitoring wash water used at the packing shed.