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Listeria fears expand N.C. cantaloupe recall; feds find 'unsanitary conditions'

Federal health inspectors have found unsanitary conditions at a North Carolina cantaloupe packing shed, leading to an expanded recall of melons that may be potentially contaminated with listeria. 

Burch Equipment LLC of Faison, N.C., is pulling 188,902 melons from store shelves in 10 states because of possible contamination that can cause illness and death, particularly in the very young, the very old, pregnant women and those with health problems.  

The company's voluntary recall comes nearly a year after one of the deadliest foodborne illness outbreaks in U.S. history, in which contaminated Colorado cantaloupes sickened at least 147 people, including at least 30 who died and one woman who had a miscarriage.

The new recall of 13,888 cases of whole Caribbean Gold cantaloupes follows an earlier recall of 580 cases of the summer fruit.

Burch officials originally identified the variety as Athena cantaloupes, but later revised that to indicate the recalled fruit are the Caribbean Gold variety.  

Federal Food and Drug Administration officials and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture are conducting an ongoing inspection at Burch Farms. The FDA warned this week that consumers should not eat the summer melons, which carry a red Burch Farms label and the code PLU #4319.

The melons were shipped between July 15 and July 27 and distributed to retail stores in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.

Consumers should discard the melons, the FDA said. 

No illnesses have been reported in connection with the Burch Farms melons, according to a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria monocytogenes infections can cause symptoms including high fever, severe headache, stiffness, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. 

But the possibility of another bout of contaminated cantaloupe has stunned at least one family affected by last year's listeria outbreak caused by Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo.

“It’s so frustrating. It’s unbelievable,” said Michelle Wakley-Paciorek, mother of Kendall Paciorek, now 10 months, who suffered a life-threatening listeria infection at birth because of the tainted cantaloupe. “I can’t even tell you. It’s making my eyes tear up, after what everybody’s been through.”

Dirty equipment, faulty sanitation and bad storage practices at Jensen Farms led to the deadly infections, federal officials concluded. The firm has filed for bankruptcy.

That outbreak led to industry-wide changes in and attention to cantaloupe safety protocols, said Kathy Means, vice president of public affairs for the Produce Marketing Association. Members of the Rocky Ford Growers Association in Colorado invested between $800,000 and $1 million in safety upgrades, said spokeswoman Diane Mulligan.  

Means said she couldn’t speak to conditions at the Burch Farms site, but she said that produce growers take the problem “very seriously.”

“We’re always disappointed when anything leads to consumer concerns,” she said.

However, she noted that the contamination was detected, the affected melons were recalled and that no illnesses have been reported to date.

“We wouldn’t want to see anyone stop eating cantaloupe,” she said. “I am confident that the system is working.”

But Wakley-Paciorek said that she no longer buys any melon. To learn that unsanitary conditions were found at another cantaloupe packing shed less than a year after listeria nearly killed her newborn is dismaying beyond words, she said.

Kendall is developmentally delayed and requires the aid of three physical therapists to help repair the deficits caused by the listeria infection.

“It’s shocking that this could happen again,” she said.

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