Listeria Outbreak Traced to Cantaloupe Packing Shed - Business Day

An epidemic at the national Listeria that killed 25 people who ate contaminated cantaloupe was probably caused by unsanitary conditions in the packing shed of the farm in Colorado where melons were grown, federal officials said Wednesday .

Government investigators said workers had walked through pools of water where listeria was likely to grow, monitoring of the deadly bacteria in the shed, which was operated by Jensen Farms, Grenada, Colorado The pathogen was found on a conveyor belt for transporting cantaloupes, melon a drying area and a floor drain, among other places.

"You are rolling around on the cantaloupe materials can not be cleaned and you get wet and you are not cool - it provides the ideal environment for the growth and spread of Listeria," said James Gorny, a counselor main food of food security and Drug Administration.

The epidemic, which began in late July, is the deadliest caused by a foodborne illness since 1985. A total of 123 people in 26 states became ill, including those who died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nicholas J. Parolisi Jr., a lawyer for the firm Jensen said he could not comment on accusations from the FDA.

The farm had passed a safety audit by an external food a few days before the start of the epidemic. Eric Jensen, a member of the family that owns the farm, said in an e-mail that the auditor gave the packing plant a score of 96 points out of 100.

F.D.A. officials did not criticize the listener directly. But Michael R. Taylor, deputy commissioner for foods, said the agency aims to set standards for how auditors should be trained and how the checks should be made.

The food industry has increasingly come to rely on what he calls third-party audits of farms or processing plants to ensure food safety. But the auditors are hired by companies to be inspected, and their procedures are largely unregulated. In several recent food safety failures, the installations concerned had passed audits by third parties.

It was not clear how Listeria came first in the packing shed, which officials described as an open-air structure to have a concrete floor, a roof and no walls.

Listeria is often found in soil or manure, but soil tests on the farm were not bacteria. Authorities said a dump truck used to take melons on a farm slaughtered cattle was parked near the hangar and treatment could have led to the installation of the bacteria.

Jensen Farms, led by Mr. Jensen and his brother Ryan, had recently acquired a set of machines used to modernize the way she washes and dries her cantaloupes. The material was used for the potatoes clean and was not intended to be used with cantaloupes, officials said. They said the equipment was corroded in places and built in a way that makes it difficult to clean and disinfect.

An area used to dry melon included an envelope of canvas that could easily have hosted the bacteria, according to a person who spoke of the transaction with the Jensens.

Officials also said the cantaloupes had not been sufficiently cooled before being placed in refrigerated storage, which could have caused the condensation on the fruit, creating conditions hospitable to the bacteria Listeria. The bacteria thrive in wet or humid conditions and can also thrive in the cold.

Dr. Gorny said that some of the conditions he describes, including puddles on the floor, had been noted during a visit in mid-September, after the plant ceased operations and the equipment been removed. It was not clear if the investigators had visited the factory while he was still in business have seen the same unhealthy conditions.

Authorities said that the conditions on the farm Jensen are not typical of the industry to produce.

"We have no reason to believe that these factors are indicative of practices throughout the industry," said Sherri McGarry, a senior FDA adviser.

The epidemic is likely to draw attention to the new use of the auditors in the food industry. Typically farms or processors are required by customers, such as supermarkets and restaurant chains, to have an auditor to assess their food safety procedures.
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