Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

What’s the big deal, Listeria cantaloupe has ONLY killed a dozen or so – and they were old anyway?

elderly-couple.jpgLikely by Monday, the CDC will increase its Listeria illness and death count of 55 and eight. By Monday afternoon the counted illnesses will certainly be well over 60, and I expect deaths to be a dozen and perhaps more. Of course, there are likely many others sickened who will never be counted, and others who died or miscarried who will never be tallied.

So far I have counted 2 dead in Colorado, 2 dead in Kansas, 1 dead in Maryland, 1 dead in Missouri, 1 dead in Nebraska, 4 deaths in New Mexico, and 1 dead in Oklahoma. Surviving families in Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska and Oklahoma have retained us, and we have spent more than a few hours with them hearing their sad stories. Three other clients cling to life in ICU’s in other states. Several others who survived are either in a rehab or recovering at home – and wondering how far their health will come back. Uniformly, you hear of a horrible infectious illness as the Listeria bacterium made it’s way into the blood stream and spinal fluid. You also hear of the shock of nearly dying or watching your spouse or parent die before their time.

And, I spent a quite day on Friday with my mom and dad who are both in their 80’s, living together on the small farm where I was raised. Watching them care for each other, I could not help but think how they, and I, would have responded if one or both of them had consumed the Jensen Farms/Frontera cantaloupe.

So, I really was not in much of a mood to get this email from someone with the tag line – “organicfarmer” – left a comment at Food Safety News:

It’s really sad that farms and farmers are getting the brunt of this. I am sad these people died, but median age of 78…. give me a break. I my opinion there is no possible way to make all food safe for all people. I grow food, take extreme precautions to keep the farm as clean from pathogens as possible, but these bacteria are everywhere in the soil. Advances in science are a double edged sword. People have succumbed from so-called food poisons since the beginning of time. It’s probably good common sense to not eat raw foods if you’re old or have a compromised immune system. Now pathogenic bacteria have been found inside the cells of lettuce. No amount of washing will ‘clean’ it.

It is stunning frankly. Yes, the non-Jensen Farms/Frontera cantaloupe growers do deserve our support, but the comment “but median age of 78…. give me a break…. It’s probably good common sense to not eat raw foods if you’re old or have a compromised immune system.”

I wish “organicfarmer” had spent time on the phone with my clients, or spent the day with my parents. “Organicfarmer,” people should not become disabled, die or miscarry because they ate a cantaloupe.

  • It’s people like organicfarmer who give the food industry – organic or otherwise – a bad name. There is nothing magic about age. My mother is 90, and in relatively good health. Some people are in their 50s or 60s and in very poor health.

    The bottom line is that everyone associated with the food industry bears a responsibility to provide a safe food supply to each and every consumer, regardless of age, health, or any other demographic. And we bear a special responsibility toward those who are most susceptible to serious illness – the elderly, the very young, pregnant women, the unborn and the immunocompromised. “organicfarmer” should find a different profession.

  • Steve

    I’m saddened by this uncaring, fatalistic comment/attitude about older people as well. I’d say, however, the person posting (posing?) as “organicfarmer” doesn’t know a whole lot about soil-borne bacteria in organic growing systems.
    While virulent strains of E coli have been found in cells of leafy greens treated with contaminated manure, the survivability of virulent organisms in biologically active, organic soils is very low to non-existent especially when compost (with a high content of natural predatory beneficial organisms) is involved. And, of course, the use of fresh manure is totally prohibited under organic certification rules…

  • Mary

    That is really horrifying–the illness numbers, and that commenter’s attitude. Wow.

    But I’m afraid that the organic regulations help to create a kind of callousness. Check out what it means for organic animals: http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/6330/the_cruel_irony_of_organic_standards

    It leads to both science denial and anti-science crank treatments. These are not standards and attitudes I’m interested in for my food safety.

  • Fritz

    I think that OrganicFarmer’s comments were probably less motivated by callousness or malice, but more by frustration. In a world where we are better and better at detecting and attributing the ultimate source of a pathogen, we are suddenly implicating the family farm as the purveyor of illness and death. What was once considered a noble profession, the growing and selling of nutritious and healthful fruits and vegetables, is at the heart of a massive catastrophe with daily media attention, large numbers if ill, people dying, and lawsuits being filed almost daily.
    Unless the investigation turns up egregiously negligent practices, it is likely that the ultimate practice that led to the contamination of the cantaloupes is going to be something that drew no particular attention as being risky. As an example, before the Odwalla apple juice outbreak, who really thought that excluding deer from an orchard would be a public health imperative?
    And so the farmer sees the potential for ultimate ruin due to involvement in a catastrophic event that was not due to their disregard of the health of the consumer, but due to a combination of bad luck and circumstances. Add on to that the emotional cost of knowing that you are involved in causing the suffering of innocent victims, and what was once seen as a honorable way to contribute to society becomes a risky and dangerous way to earn a living. I am sure that frustration is runs very high amongst the farming community every time an outbreak like this occurs.
    Perhaps our best response in the pursuit of improving public health will be one of moving away from trying to lay blame for outbreaks of food borne diseases towards a more comprehensive farm to fork approach to prevention. Instead of the victim blaming the restaurant, the restaurant blaming the processor, the processor blaming the abattoir, and the abattoir blaming the farmer, we could work together in a comprehensive manner realizing that each step of the process affects the preceding and succeeding steps and that only by working together can truly significant improvements be made.

  • Sam

    Sounds like organicfarmer has been drinking Teapublican kool-aid. Kinda doubt he’d be singing this tune if his mother died from tainted food. Oh, wait, Teapublicans are created by their god through asexual means.

  • Mr. Marler has made a small fortune following these food safety issues. You’re right Fritz, I am extremely frustrated that bacteria that are unbiquitous and cannot be easily controlled are the basis for folks dying: the other side of the coin they are also making some folks rich. The leafy greens marketing agreement is just one example that is causing this particular farmer great frustration. GAP is another. If one of my farm dogs… which are my control for reptiles, deer, moles, gophers, rats, mice, rabbits, and other vermin…. are found in just one of my feilds I am given an automatic failure grade in my GAP certification. That means I have to put ten foot high fences around all my growing areas to keep out deer…something I cannot afford…. but that will do nothing for the turtles and snakes who are well known to be the biggest carriers of samonella.
    Mr. Marler also did not respond to my comments’ main thrust that I intended to be understood… THERE IS NO WAY TO MAKE ALL FOOD SAFE FOR ALL PEOPLE. Furthermore he glossed over the fact I mentioned I take food safety very seriously. I don’t use manure on my farm, never have. I don’t raise meat, chicken and take every precaution known to man including using Oxidate to disinfect produce before it hits the market. I have owned a certified organic farm since 1998.
    I have testified before the USDA on the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and you may read my testimony in the Congressional Record.
    If you really want to get involved with substances that kill thousands of folks get with alcohol, or tobacco. I might also add that Mr. Marler doesn’t know me, but I have a mutual friend who knows him…. I won’t stoop to mudslinging… I also hate republicans and democrats and what politics and the legal system has done to this country. Farmers built this great nation and it’s up to farmers to save it. I surmise this outbreak put that farm out of business for good. My 2 million product liability insurance wouldn’t even save me if Mr. Marler came after me. I don’t hide behind a corp structure, or even a LLC. I am a simple partnership.
    Furthermore I am a certified Organic food processor and DO have an education in these sorts of bacteria…. not an expert by any means, but more educated than he gives me credit for.
    My mother died from blood clots she got from sitting in an airplane on a tranatlantic flight. My dad died in a Sauna at an exclusive Tennnis Club. We are all gonna die sooner or later. Personally God pulled me back from suicide not once but twice…. when your number is up, there is little you can do about it. And if God is not finshed with you on Earth there is no way you are gonna leave it. I have no problem if you want to call me crazy… but as Waylon so aptly put it, I have always been crazy, but it keeps me from going insane.

  • Diana

    Radiating produce has long been advocated as more effective & cheaper than trying to wash all produce with chemical bacteriacides. Yet, it doesn’t go anywhere because of “green” groups afraid of anything with the word radiation attached. The sun radiates, we are surrounded with cosmic rays. There needs to be some check at the end of production before the produce hits the stores. Otherwise, frozen foods offer the best alternative, and cooked vegetables & fruit. I know, we’re hyped about the importance of fresh fruits & vegetables because of loss of vitamins in cooking, but I still think it’s better to cook the food & take a daily vitamine-mineral supplement.

  • Travis

    This operation should be immediately shut down by the government at gunpoint with all of its cash confiscated as in the Rawesome Foods raid in California. Raw dairy is contraband but you can continue to kill and sicken people with tainted produce and meat from conventional and Big Ag farms?

    Also, irradiating food destroys enzymes that are needed for digestion while radiation from the sun is needed for photosynthesis. You are uninformed.

    Since when has organic farming been associated with the supposed Tea Party? Any comments that hurt Republicans must come from a Democrat and any comments that hurt a Democrat must surely come from a Republican (or the disgruntled Republicans’ new group called the Tea Party). The left/right paradigm is utter nonsense.

    We truly are in a brave new world!

  • Linda

    RE: “organicfarmer”:

    You have had undeniable tragedies in your life. That said, the statement that no one leaves earth, “before your number is pulled”, is neither fact nor fiction… and in this case irrelevant.
    If you have the lives of other people in your hands…then be the interventional help that you received in your suicide attempts and understand that by producing food you are in fact impacting the lives of others in a serious way. Your consumers are trusting that you are providing safe food for them. I can’t help but be reminded of a Doctor’s oath: “first do no harm”. You have been lucky and I’ve no doubt that you do try to do your best to grow and distribute uncontaminated food.
    But your attitude about what you and your family went through should have no place in this discussion except maybe to be a driving force for you to care about other people who don’t want to go through what you did. That’s a good and humane farmer. The dead people are old so what if they die ( to paraphrase you). I’m thinking your written manifesto is more about your inner frustrations than your farming.
    BTW, you should indeed have the hell scared out of you by Bill Marler. You haven’t done your research on this man, I’m guessing. He protects people that are victims of foodborne illnesses for a reason that comes from his heart. Professionals in Public Health departments and laboratories all over the country know this man and trust in and respect him. You may want to check him out before, once again, wandering into unrelated and irrelevant personal life stories to conclude that he and others are out to get you.
    Therapy may be something to check out, as well.

  • Deb

    Many thoughts came to mind a I read organicfarmer’s initial comment. Of course, the “I am sad these people died, but median age of 78…. give me a break.” line seems crass and cavalier, and is. I think it is probably an uncensored initial reaction, and I’d like not to be a customer of this person. Would you feel worse, organicfarmer, if these were the miscarriages and stillbirths that listeriosis can cause? Would the outbreak be significant to you then?

    On the other hand, the pathogens that are of concern these days have a tendency to evolve and move and show up in unexpected places at times, so I do feel sympathy for the owner of Jensen Farms, who no doubt had no intention of causing harm to so many people. As the food production system changes, so will the pathogens, and the illnesses caused by them. There will be outbreaks that catch everyone off guard. I also have great sympathy and support for family farmers, and I don’t believe organicfarmer speaks for the typical family farmer. He/she seems to have several additional agendas.

    For those who raise food, there is a particular responsibility to remember that people ingest food to nourish their bodies, and they feel a real sense of outrage when it makes them ill. If you don’t want to bear some of this responsibility, then go into a profession like reupholstering furniture. My own elderly parents are dear to me, and I don’t want something that they eat to rob me of 10 or 15 years with them. For god’s sake, that they are elderly does not mean that their life is worth less or that their loss would be less tragic. I’m sorry, but food is not supposed to KILL you.

    I work in public health, and I am grateful for people like Bill Marler. The law firm is making the food world safer for the public, even if it has to use the threat of litigation to do it. For some of the unscrupulous or careless or callous types, and there are some in the food production, manufacture, processing and preparation business, exacting a pound of flesh is what it takes. However, Bill Marler’s law firm has also become a leader in education and information related to the prevention of foodborne illness, and this is because their hearts are in it for the right reasons.