I was reading the “Staff Report on the Investigation of the Outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in Cantaloupe at Jensen Farms” as it was released today. Frankly, it did not break any new ground on the cause of this devastating outbreak. The staff restated that FDA officials cited several deficiencies in Jensen Farms’ facility, which reflected a general lack of awareness of food safety principles and may have contributed to the outbreak, including:
• Condensation from cooling systems draining directly onto the floor,
• Poor drainage resulting in water pooling around the food processing equipment,
• Inappropriate food processing equipment which was difficult to clean (i.e., Listeria found on the felt roller brushes),
• No antimicrobial solution, such as chlorine, in the water used to wash the cantaloupes, and
• No equipment to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before they were placed into cold storage.
• FDA officials were highly critical of the processing methods used at Jensen Farms. According to these FDA officials, the probable causes of the melon contamination at Jensen Farms included “serious design flaws” in the processing technique used at Jensen Farms, “poor sanitary design of the facility itself,” and “lack of awareness of food safety standards by Jensen Farms.” In particular, FDA emphasized to Committee staff that the processing equipment and the decision not to chlorinate the water used to wash the cantaloupes were two probable causes of the contamination.
Of more than passing interest is the discussion surrounding the “new equipment” that was placed in the Jensen Farm facility and the lack of chlorine rinse. Also, the report mentioned that retailers (unnamed) visited the Jensen Farms facility, as did broker/shipper Fronterra.
In addition a letter to the “FDA from Democratic members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce” was also released. It focused a great deal on the usefulness of audits. The Committee members noted:
We urge you to review closely the information uncovered during our investigation. In particular, the investigation identified significant problems with the third-party inspection system used by growers and distributors to ensure the safety of fresh produce. This auditing system is often the first and only line of defense against a deadly foodborne disease outbreak.
This auditing system failed in the case of the recent Listeria outbreak. Our investigation reveals some of the reasons why: the auditors’ findings were not based on the practices of the best farms and failed to ensure that the producer met FDA guidance; the auditors missed or failed to prioritize important food safety deficiencies; the auditors lacked any regulatory authority and did not report identified problems to the FDA or other state or federal authorities; the auditors did not ensure that identified problems were resolved; and the auditors provided advance notice of site visits and spent only a short period of time on-site. It also became apparent in the investigation that the auditors had multiple conflicts of interest.
And, despite having nearly two-dozen victims contact the Committee, none were interviewed or allowed to give testimony.
As I said to Bloomberg:
“It’s unfortunate that victims and their families weren’t involved in the congressional committee’s investigation,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based food safety lawyer who represents clients in the Jensen Farms case, in an interview.
“There’s really nothing new that’s added,” said Marler, referring to the report. “It’s basically what the FDA already found.”
And to the AP:
Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer who is suing Jensen Farms on behalf of several of the victims, said government inspectors should be present at food facilities more often.
“The present audit system is fraught with conflicts and is designed not to find safety problems, but to keep food – regardless of quality – flowing from farm to fork,” he said.