FDA Names Source of Listeria Contamination

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3min 53sec

A long-awaited report on how cantaloupe from Jensen Farms near Holly, Colorado became contaminated with dangerous listeria bacteria came out today. Twenty-five people nationwide have now died from the outbreak, including six in Colorado. CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney has more.

CPR HEALTH REPORTER ERIC WHITNEY: The Food and Drug Administration has been investigating Jensen Farms since September 10th. Five weeks later it's announced its results.

Sherri McGarry is with the FDA.

SHERRI MCGARRY, FDA: the most likely factors that contributed to the contamination of the fresh, whole cantaloupes likely occurred in the packing facility.

REPORTER: The FDA isn't ruling out the possibility that the melons could have been contaminated while growing in the field, but the agency says Jensens' packing facility is the most likely place melons picked up the bacteria that caused the outrbreak.

MCGARRY: The packing equipment was not easily cleanable and sanitized.

REPORTER: Jensens' packing facility is open-air, and the FDA says a dump truck that made trips to a cattle operation was parked next to it. That could have introduced listeria to the loccation. The FDA also says the packing facility was built in a way that made it hard to clean, and that it allowed water to pool on the floor. It also says processing equipment previously used for potatoes could have contributed to the spread of listeria, and that cantaloupe weren't properly cooled before being stored.
The FDA's Jim Gorney says Jensen didn't appear to be following common industry practices.

JIM GORNEY, FDA: I've been to a lot of produce handling facilities, and again the key issues were, sanitary facility design, sanitary equipment design, and post-harvest handling, and none of those were typical for a typical post-harvest handling operation of any fresh fruit or vegetable.

REPORTER: The owners of Jensen Farms aren't talking to the media. A message on their Facebook page says that's on the advice of counsel. It also says the farm has hired a private laboratory to help them discover the source of the outbreak and to prevent any in the future.

Critics of America's food safety system say outbreaks like this one can be prevented.

ERIC OLSEN, PEW HEALTH GROUP: I'm Eric Olsen, I direct food programs for the Pew Health Group, which is part of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

REPORTER: Olsen says the federal Food Safety Modernization Act that President Obama signed in January has the potential to stop outbreaks before they start. But it's not in place yet. New rules for fruit and vegetable processers aren't scheduled to be proposed until this January.
Once fully implemented, the frequency of inspections is supposed to increase from once every ten years to once every three.

OLSEN: we need an inspection forcce that goes out and follows up. Its sorta like if you have speed limits with never having a cop out on the highway checking on whether people are complying, eventually a lot of people are going to start speeding. And that unfortunately sort of what's been happening in the food area, that we haven't really had frequent enough inspections.

REPORTER: Olsen says the agency estimates it will need an extra $280 million to increase the frequency of its inspections and otherwise implement the rules. And he notes that Congress is not in a spending mood.

OLSEN: FDA has been facing the potential for a massive budget cut. The House or Representatives recently voted to cut the FDA's food safety bugdet by $80million.

REPORTER: A recent study from Ohio University says foodborne disease outbreaks cost the US a hundred and fifty-two billion dollars a year.

What about the state? Does Colorado's Department of Agriculture have any responsibility to inspect and OK farms or food processing facilities here? Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar.

COLORADO AGRICULTURE COMMISSIONER JOHN SALAZAR: We don't even have the authority to do that, this is a food and drug administration issue.

REPORTER: The Food and Drug Administration has not yet closed its investigation into Jensen Farms. The agency says it is still considering what enforcement actions, if any, it will take against the melon grower. Jensen Farms has already been named in multiple wrongful death lawsuits in several states.

[Photo: CDC]