Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak Caused by Unsanitary Conditions: FDA

Federal investigators say unsanitary conditions at a Jensen Farms packing facility may have led to an outbreak from listeria-tainted cantaloupes that have killed more than two dozen people, making it the deadliest food poisoning outbreak in a generation. 

The FDA released an environmental assessment of conditions that may have contributed to a multistate listeria outbreak and cantaloupe recall at Jensen Farms’ packing facility in Colorado.

The report indicates that a number of conditions at the plant likely made it easier for Listeria monocytogenes to spread to cantaloupe that was shipped nationwide, killing 25 people and sickening at least 126 more.

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Due to the amount of time listeria can live in the human body before making people sick, federal health officials say the outbreak may not be over, despite the contaminated cantaloupes being recalled, consumed or having rotted by the middle of September.

While the FDA has still not pinpointed a specific cause of the listeria contamination, inspectors did find a number of factors at the plant that they judged made it unsanitary. Their findings resulted in a warning letter sent to Jensen Farms on Wednesday.

Investigators reported seeing a floor design that allowed water to pool on the packing facility floor near equipment and grading stations, packing equipment that was not easily cleaned and sanitized, washing and drying equipment that was used for cantaloupe packing was also used for another raw agricultural commodity, and no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from cantaloupes before they were put into cold storage. In addition, inspectors found listeria where the cantaloupes were grown and say the listeria may have come into the facility on cantaloupes brought in from the fields.

The warning letter gives Jensen Farms 15 days to take corrective actions, which Jensen Farms has already agreed to do. The company has also agreed to allow the FDA to inspect its facility before it resumes operation.

A recall was issued last month for Jensen Farms’ Rocky Ford cantaloupes, and subsequent inspections found listeria strains associated with the illnesses on machinery and cantaloupes at the manufacturer’s packing facility. The recall was expanded on September 23 to include 594 pounds of Carol’s Cuts fresh cut cantaloupe.

The death toll has made the cantaloupe listeria outbreak the deadliest since 1985, when 48 people in California died due to a listeriosis outbreak linked to soft cheese. The outbreak has hit the elderly the hardest, with most of the victims having been older adults.

At least seven food poisoning lawsuits have been filed by people who fell ill or by family members who lost loved ones due to the outbreak. That number is expected to grow.

Listeria illnesses pose a particular risk for children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. For pregnant women, illness from Listeria bacteria can cause miscarriages and still births.

Blood tests are usually required to diagnose listeriosis, which can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of listeriosis include muscle aches, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, severe headaches and fever. If the bacteria spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and nervous system, it could cause meningitis and other complications.

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