Cantaloupe Farm Behind Deadliest Food-borne Outbreak in 25Yrs Got Top Score

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The listeria outbreak from cantaloupes causing 25 deaths is now considered the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in more than 25 years.

The listeria outbreak which began on July 31 has killed 25 people and sickened 123 in 26 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to an FDA probe, the Jensen Farms cantaloupes blamed for the listeria outbreak may have become contaminated in the farm’s own packing facilities.

The FDA identified the following factors as those that most likely contributed to the introduction, spread, and growth of Listeria monocytogenes in the cantaloupes:


There could have been low level sporadic Listeria monocytogenes in the field where the cantaloupe were grown, which could have been introduced into the packing facility.

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.


The packing facility’s design allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways. The packing facility floor was constructed in a manner that made it difficult to clean

The packing equipment was not easily cleaned and sanitized; washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe packing was previously used for postharvest handling of another raw agricultural commodity


There was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage. As the cantaloupes cooled there may have been condensation that promoted the growth of Listeria monocytogenes. [End Report]

USAToday reports Jensen Farms got a top score of 96% from Primus Labs, a firm auditing the plant’s sanitation practices six days before the first person fell ill.

USAToday adds the rating has raised questions about the credibility of so-called third-party audits, a practice used increasingly by food sellers who hire auditing companies.

One of the nation’s top cantaloupe-safety experts, Trevor Suslow, characterized the audit’s casual mention of changes in how the cantaloupes were washed as “unacceptable” and a clear violation of current industry practices.

Jensen switched to a new fruit-washing system in July 2011 when Jensen Farms installed a used potato-washing machine to wash its cantaloupe. Suslow said he was rendered “speechless” at news that Jensen was using untreated water to wash its melons.

Problems at Jensen Farms “Packing House 101″

USAToday noted Jensen Farms had previously used a “hydro cooler” system to wash and cool the melons as they came in from the field, using recirculated water that was treated with an anti-microbial to kill bacteria.

For the 2011 harvest, cantaloupes were washed with fresh water that was not recirculated; the auditor, James DiIorio, noted on the first page of his audit that “no anti-microbial solution was injected into the water of the wash station.”

“You would flat-out never do that, absolutely not,” said Suslow, who spent more than six years researching cantaloupe safety and handling.

“No matter how clean the source of water is, once it’s sprayed on any kind of surface where you have multiple produce items rolling across it, you’re trying to prevent cross-contamination … so you always add something to the water,” he said.

The president of Primus Labs defended the audit and claimed it is not industry standard to require the wash water be treated with an anti-microbial. He said his auditor should be commended for commenting in the audit that untreated water was being used. “He didn’t score them down but he commented on it.”

Suslow disagreed and said Jensen Farms was relying on people they consider knowledgeable and expert — that’s why they’re paying them.”

The problems that were found at Jensen Farms are “Packing House 101,” said Stephen Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board. “Every common surface must be cleaned, rinsed and sanitized,” he said. “These are all just known, recognized practices.”

“It’s just disgusting to me,” Patricio said of both Jensen Farms and Primus Labs. “I think of the damage that they’ve done to our industry as the result of this oversight. No, I won’t even talk about it as oversight, it’s abuse.”

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper
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