Guest comment by Trevor Suslow: Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .

10/24/2011 09:55:00 AM
Tom Karst

By Trevor Suslow

In my opinion, Jensen Farms is ultimately the responsible party but is not a produce industry pariah. There are many parties that bear responsibility for the tragedy imposed upon the victims, and their families, after eating Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe.

The ripple effects wash over the Colorado cantaloupe industry, the cantaloupe industry at large, and the melon and produce industry as a whole. From the information available at this time, it appears clear that an exceptional combination of factors converged with the result of widespread facility and product contamination. I firmly believe, based on my experience and exposure to produce production and postharvest handling nationally and internationally, that a combination of failed or absent preventive hurdles will ultimately emerge as the key factors at this one operation.

However, I am equally certain that potential or likely predecessors exist more broadly than is being truthfully and self-critically appraised. I am concerned that members of the broad produce industry are too readily dismissing this as the negligence of “one bad actor” rather than taking the information, as it comes into the light, as a critical time for re-assessment of vulnerabilities.

Though the investigation is on-going, this is the responsible time to become better informed about the systemic nature of the linkages that exist between pathogens, produce, and practices. In all operations there exists the potential for shifting levels of risk inadvertently, by indifference or by ignorance, from routine and safe to beyond the boundaries of our control.

When it comes to food safety, I am a firm believer in the saying and in applying “You don’t know what you don’t know”. I know this applies to me and I try very hard to guard against complacency in challenging my deficiencies in subject areas beyond my expertise or my version of common sense.

Recently, I was driving around a rural farming area between extension meetings, as I often do, just to see what was going on locally. A field had been staged for harvest and what struck me was the close proximity to a potential source of airborne contamination. Not the field itself but the equipment and packing materials that would subsequently be brought over to the scheduled harvest blocks.

By chance, that potential became reality as a plume was discharged and drifted across the area. I was the only one around to observe this event and I could not know that anyone responsible for the harvest operations would observe or react to this hazard. Clearly the person who dropped the materials and equipment at this spot wasn’t in tune with the risk potential because it was that obvious.


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