Discuss as:

Dirty equipment blamed for deadly outbreak in cantaloupe

Ed Andrieski / AP

Eric Jensen, owner of Jensen Farms near Holly, Colo., walks a field of rotting cantaloupes last month. Dirty equipment and problems with processing and storage at the farm's packing plant have been blamed for the deadliest outbreak of listeria in the U.S. in more than 25 years.

By JoNel Aleccia

Potentially contaminated processing equipment and problems with packing and storage of whole cantaloupes at a Colorado farm likely led to the deadliest listeria outbreak in the United States in 25 years, which has so far claimed 25 lives in a dozen states, federal health regulators said Wednesday.

Pools of water on the  floor of the Jensen Farms packing facility in Granada, Colo., equipment that was not easily cleaned and sanitized and failure to cool newly harvested cantaloupes before sending them to cold storage all contributed to the outbreak, the first-ever listeria contamination blamed on whole melons, federal Food and Drug Administration officials said Wednesday. 

"We are quite confident and certain," that those factors led to the outbreak blamed so far for 123 illnesses in 26 states, said Sherri McGarry, senior advisor to the FDA's CORE Network in the Office of Foods, who spoke at a Wednesday press conference.

The news that the problem may have been prevented through basic sanitation practices stunned Jeni Exley, whose 84-year-old father, Herb Stevens of Littleton, Colo., has been hospitalized for nearly two months after a listeria infection caused by contaminated Jensen Farms cantaloupe. He might be able to return home finally this week, said Exley, 55, whose family is suing the farm with the help of Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler.

"Shame on them," said Exley. "What kind of statement can I give you without being too angry? It shouldn't have happened. They had control over it."

Investigators tested fruit samples and equipment from Jensen Farms and confirmed the presence of four outbreak strains of the listeria monocytogenes bacteria confirmed in the illnesses and deaths.

The FDA said Jensen Farms, which is based in Holly, Colo., had recently bought used equipment that was corroded and hard to clean.

For example, the equipment used to wash and dry cantaloupe showed signs of dirt and product build-up, even after it had been disassembled, cleaned and sanitzed, the FDA's report said. The equipment had been previously used to process raw potatoes, officials said, which could have left listeria bacteria behind.

In addition, a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked near the facility and could have introduced contamination to the facility, investigators said. Low levels of listeria in the field also could have introduced the bacteria into the packing facility. And the design of the plant allowed stagnant water to pool on the floor. The FDA had not inspected the farm before the Sept. 10 session that first detected listeria problems.

The FDA issued the company a warning letter detailing violations, but the investigation is still open.

Jensen Farms voluntarily has agreed to correct all problems found in the inspection, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg told reporters. In addition, the firm has agreed not to process, pack or distribute produce until the agency approves.

The tragic deaths and illnesses have underscored the need for prevention at all levels of the food supply system, Hamburg said.

“If we’re to have a food safety system that truly prevents foodborne illness, we must all practice prevention,” she said.

The conditions at Jensen Farms were not indicative of the produce industry in general, FDA officials noted.

The outbreak has claimed lives in a dozen states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. They include six in Colorado, five in New Mexico, two each in Kansas, Louisiana, New York and Texas and one each in Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wyoming. People who've died have ranged in age from 48 to 96 years, with a median age of 87.

Illnesses have occurred in 26 states in people aged younger than 1 to 96, with most cases occurring in people older than 60. Four illnesses were related to pregnancy, including a newborn who fell ill. One miscarriage has been reported.

The peak in illnesses appears to have occurred in mid-August and the number of illnesses reported now appears to be decreasing, said Dr. Barbara Mahon, deputy chief of the Enteric Disease Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  But, the long incubation period for listeria means people could become ill up to two months after eating tainted fruit.

“It’s too soon to declare the outbreak over," Mahon said.