(UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:20 p.m.) Four months after inspecting the farm, Food and Drug Administration officials suggested that the owner of Chamberlain Farm Produce Inc. check his operation for “a source of wide-spread contamination” in relation to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 261 and killed three in 2012.
Cantaloupe grower Tim Chamberlain said in a press release, issued through his attorney, that he has already had an independent microbiologist investigate the situation.
Chamberlain contends the bacteria responsible for the outbreak “was present on surrounding lands and ... the source of the bacterial contamination was not (his) packing facilities, equipment or operations.”
The FDA’s warning letter said environmental tests at Chamberlain’s outdoor packing facility — as well as cantaloupe samples from his fields and at retail — tested positive for the outbreak strains, as did his growing fields.
Despite those findings, Chamberlain said in his press release that “the overwhelming evidence is that the bacterium that caused human illness ... was unrelated to any observed conditions of the (Chamberlain Farm Produce) operating procedures ...”
FDA inspectors first visited the Owensville, Ind., farm Aug. 14. The agency’s Detroit district office sent a warning letter to Chamberlain on Dec. 14; it did not appear on the FDA website until Jan. 2.
The warning letter cites conditions the FDA reported on Oct. 3 and gives Chamberlain 15 days from receipt of the letter to respond.
Chamberlain’s lawyer, Gary Zhao, said on Jan. 2 he was preparing a written response.
The FDA warning letter was sent 11 weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the salmonella outbreak over on Oct. 5.
Before the Dec. 14 letter, FDA officials had not publically raised the issue of a possible source of widespread contamination at Chamberlain Farms. The letter notes that samples from Chamberlain’s growing fields “which were separated by more than a mile” tested positive for salmonella strains that were indistinguishable from those that sickened people in 24 states.
The FDA letter also states that some wellheads providing water for the cantaloupe operation were not capped. Also, wells that were capped were not appropriately sealed, according to the letter.
FDA tests of water from the wells and spigots tested positive for coliforms and E. coli, which the warning letter states should not be present in properly protected wells.
Although the FDA letter does not mention it, a report by Indiana’s Department of Health made public in early October showed a small feedlot for show cattle adjacent to one of Chamberlain’s cantaloupe fields. The Indiana inspector also reported well water used in the cantaloupe wash basin was at least 56 degrees.
Chamberlain said in the prss release that he will not grow cantaloupe until the FDA investigation is complete and it is determined that the “surrounding environment can be made free of potential sources of bacterium that could contaminate (his) growing fields.”
However, he has not incidated whether he will continue to grow watermelon. Some of his watermelons tested positive for salmonella in mid-September. That salmonella strain was indistinguishable from one found on his cantaloupe and linked to sick people, according to the CDC.