(For updated coverage, please see UPDATED: Chamberlain Farms recalls cantaloupe linked to outbreak) Health officials continue to investigate the source a multi-state salmonella outbreak that’s been linked to cantaloupes from Southwest Indiana.
The name of the grower suspected in the outbreak, first reported by federal and state agencies on Aug. 17, had not been released as of Aug. 21.
Twenty states are involved. Two deaths and 141 illnesses have been linked to the outbreak.
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several state health departments said Aug. 17 that the grower voluntarily withdrew cantaloupes from the stream of commerce and notified customers of the potential contamination.
As of Aug. 21, the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had not updated warnings posted on their websites Aug. 17.
An FDA spokeswoman, Shelly Burgess, said the agency won’t release the grower’s name because the investigation is ongoing. Lab tests confirmed the grower’s cantaloupes have the same strain of salmonella as found in the victims.
“We are still investigating the source of the contamination,” Burgess said Aug. 20. “Since there is a grower who has voluntarily withdrawn product, there is cooperation and therefore no mandatory recall.”
Kentucky officials were the first to reveal the connection between the cantaloupe from southwest Indiana and the salmonella in a consumer warning Aug. 17. The two deaths were in Kentucky.
“It is odd that the FDA is not naming the farm nor naming what grocery stores sold the cantaloupe,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety litigation. He is representing dozens of victims in a 2011 listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo.
“It is great that state health departments give us the numbers, but why not the name of the farm where the cantaloupes were grown, and more importantly, what grocery stores they were sold at.”
FDA’s Burgess said the agency is working on a list of retailers, but as of Aug. 21 it was not yet available.
In Iowa, six people are confirmed to be sick from the specific strain of salmonella as found in the southwest Indiana cantaloupe. But Iowa’s medical director for the Department of Health, Patricia Quinlisk, said that doesn’t necessarily mean the cantaloupe from southwest Indiana are the cause.
“This strain is one of the most common,” Quinlisk said Aug. 21. “You would expect to find a fair number of cases of this at any point.”
Quinlisk said she is not ruling out the Indiana cantaloupe as the cause, but merely expressing caution at this point in the investigation. She said the FDA has not provided her with the name of the Indiana cantaloupe grower who withdrew his melons.
Dan Egel, a plant pathologist at Purdue University and treasurer of the Southwest Indiana Melon and Vegetable Association, said some cantaloupe growers have abandoned melons in their fields.
“One grower I spoke with has already plowed them under,” Egel said. “Others are saying they won’t plant any next year. One man had $15,000 worth in his cooler and he said he was just going to throw them out because no one wants to buy from the area.”
Egel said in his 17 years in the region the number of small cantaloupe growers has declined.
“It used to be if you grew watermelon you also grew a few acres of cantaloupe. That has changed,” Egel said. “Retailers started asking for the melons to be washed and then they started wanting them to be pre-cooled. ... That kind of equipment costs money that smaller growers just don’t have.”
Small or large, growers should be held to the same food safety standards, said Steve Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board, and Dan Vache, vice president of supply chain management for united Fresh Produce Association, Washington D.C.
Patricio said he is angry and frustrated by the current cantaloupe news. He said the California cantaloupe growers have been working on food safety techniques for their commodity for 20 years and have developed guidelines and materials for growers.
But Patricio and Vache said other entities along the supply chain have responsibilities, too.
“I’d like to believe that there would be unanimity with retailers on food safety requirements," Patricio said.
Vache said retailers and distributors not only need to require their suppliers to use good food safety practices, but they need to have traceability programs in place for instances such as the current salmonella outbreak.
“Some of these issues will go away when we achieve whole-chain traceability,” Vache said. “Once it leaves the grower’s hands it’s up to the rest of the chain.”
Vache also said retailers need to be diligent about buying from suppliers and distributors who have proven food safety programs. When regular suppliers run low, giving into the temptation to use a source with lower standards can lead to problems.
“It is incumbent upon them to have more discipline in their buying practices,” Vache said.