Deadly Listeria Outbreak Caused by Flawed Food Safety Steps

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WASHINGTON—A new Energy and Commerce Committee report detailing the investigation into the 2011 Listeria outbreak in cantaloupes grown and processed at Jensen Farms reveals the use of new processing equipment and the decision to implement a packing and washing technique involving water without added chlorine were two probable causes of the introduction and spread of the Listeria contamination. The report also called into question third-party audits conducted at the facility.

The report is based on documents from and interviews with food safety officials at the Food and Drug Administration, Jensen Farms, Frontera Produce (the cantaloupe distributor), Primus Labs, and Bio Food Safety (third-party auditors of Jensen Farms).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 30 people are dead and a total of 133 persons in 26 states have been sickened with the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes linked to whole cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms’ production fields in Granada, Colo. In addition, one woman pregnant at the time of illness had a miscarriage.

“The recent outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes was the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in over 25 years. The committee launched this investigation to provide helpful information to the FDA, growers, distributors, and other authorities in their efforts to improve the safety of our nation’s food supply. The committee will continue to monitor upcoming examinations of the Listeria outbreak and related proposals to help prevent another such tragedy," said members of the committee.

According to FDA, the outbreak would have likely been prevented if Jensen Farms had maintained its facilities in accordance with existing FDA guidance. In the case of cantaloupe processing, FDA has no specific regulations, only guidance. The guidance which Bio Food Safety did not consider in its audit represents the agency’s best and most timely advice on how processing should be handled.

The cantaloupe industry, academics, and government officials, including representatives from FDA, attended a conference at the University of California, Davis on Jan. 12, 2012, to examine the findings from the investigation of the Listeria outbreak, and to reduce the food safety risks associated with cantaloupe. The Committee will monitor that conference and its proposals for the prevention of further outbreaks.

Click here for the full text of the report.

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