In 2011, the most lethal outbreak of food poisoning this nation has ever seen happened after cases of cantaloupe shipped from a Colorado farm were eaten. The cantaloupes harbored the deadly bacteria, listeria, hospitalizing 147 people and killing 33. Cantaloupe farmers, Eric and Ryan Jensen, are being held responsible for the outbreak and have been arrested. But, as details of the crime begin to appear it begs the question of whether our food supply is safe and will there be others arrested for similar offenses.
Is our food safe to eat? What procedures must farmers follow to ensure the food shipped to markets across the country is safe? These are big questions with big consequences facing the public and the food manufacturing industry today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that approximately 48 million people, that is one out of six will become sick each year from foodborne illnesses. Of those, about 128,000 will be hospitalized and 3,000 will die.
The CDC and the FDA are accusing the Jensen’s of not properly cleaning the cantaloupe before shipping them out. Details about the case indicate that they did not follow the proper safety procedures, which resulted in “At least six shipments of cantaloupe contaminated with listeria monocytogens,” said Jim Gorny, vice-president of food safety and technology with the Produce Marketers Association. The bacteria-laden cantaloupes were shipped to 29 states.
The case of the Jensen brothers will be under major scrutiny when it goes to trial on December 2. This is the first time criminal charges have been filed by the FDA in connection with a foodborne disease. In a recent U.S. Attorney’s office press release, it said the criminal charges were filed to send a message to those involved in growing and processing food for U.S consumption and to “ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food supply chain.” In the past decade, besides the cantaloupe farmers, only four other people have met with criminal charges; but, if the Jensen’s case is lost, will there be others?
At the time, Gorny was with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition as a senior advisor for product safety. He said the Jensen’s had “significantly deviated” from the industry’s safety standards during the harvest season in 2011. He cited that they neglected to use chlorine, an anti-microbial used throughout the industry, during produce packing. The contamination was spread during the process on the conveyor, that Gorny said ‘inoculated’ the listeria with the life-threatening pathogen.
The FDA is also claiming that the melon contamination was probably caused by unsanitary conditions in the packing house. Old, difficult to clean equipment was being used and tests proved that there was positive samples of listeria on it. Dirty, standing water on the floor of the building was also blamed. The procedure for cooling the cantaloupes as they were taken out of the fields was cited as another possible contribution to the growth of the listeria.
The Jensens have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them, saying in a statement this has been a “terrible accident.” For the victims of the outbreak and their families, they are asking if this ‘terrible accident’ could have been prevented with adherence to the same safety procedures of which other farmers and processors adhere. For the public, the incidences of these two cantaloupe farmers make them wonder what is next and will there be others.
By: Lisa Stiles Nance