House panel probes listeria-tainted cantaloupes
A House of Representatives panel on Friday inserted itself into the investigation of listeria-tainted cantaloupes, which have been linked to 25 deaths in the nation’s deadliest food-borne outbreak in a quarter of a century.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee requested a staff briefing from Jensen Farms, the Colorado farm that voluntarily recalled the contaminated fruit Sept. 14. The committee also asked Jensen to protect all documents and communications in the case.
“The committee has a long bipartisan history of conducting food safety oversight and is very concerned about these recent developments,” committee leaders wrote. "We intend to learn more from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, Jensen Farms, and others who may provide insight into the causes of this outbreak and the prevention of future outbreaks.”
The letter was signed by six members of the committee, including chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and ranking member Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills).
A total of 123 persons from 26 states have been sickened by one of the strains of listeria traced to the cantaloupes, according to this week’s posting by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest state to report an illness was Pennsylvania.
Twenty-five deaths have been reported. In addition, one woman pregnant at the time of illness had a miscarriage.
Earlier, this week, the FDA sent Jensen a warning letter outlining the findings of its inspection of the farm’s packing facility. The inspection took place in early September.
According to officials, 39 environmental samples were taken and 13 were confirmed to have strains of listeria. Cantaloupes taken from the farm’s cold storage area were also found to have the bacteria.
Among the possible contamination factors cited by officials was the facility’s poor design that allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and walkways used by employees and hard-to-clean packing equipment. Some of the washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupes had been previously used for other raw agricultural products and that may have allowed the contamination to spread.
The report said the listeria could have been in the fields where the cantaloupes were grown. It also mentioned “a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked adjacent to the packing facility and could have introduced contamination into the facility.”
Listeria contamination is often linked to animal waste or rotting plant matter that was not properly cleaned from machinery.
In addition, there was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage, the inspection found. “As the cantaloupes cooled there may have been condensation that promoted the growth of Listeria monocytogenes,” the FDA said.
Jensen has not been responding to the media. But the FDA noted in a letter that the farm has told the agency that it has agreed to government inspections of its growing, packaging and cold storage operations before it resumes food harvesting, packaging or processing. Jensen Farms also agreed to correct all objectionable observations noted during the inspections, the FDA said.
The CDC last week said it had confirmed a sixth death in Colorado and a second in New York. Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming have also reported deaths.
Photo: Workers use a tractor to remove plastic from a field of rotting cantaloupe on the Jensen Farms in September. Contaminated fruit from the farm has been blamed for 25 deaths. Credit: Ed Andrieski/AP Photo