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Democrats Want Congress to Investigate Listeria Outbreak

The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations produced the Food Safety Modernization Act after a series of public hearings on tragic foodborne illness outbreaks involving everything from peanut butter to eggs.

It was the bipartisan support generated in those public hearings that pushed the new food safety law through a Congress that does not pass much these days.  Since January, however, control of the U.S. House passed to the Republicans. 

Now, in the aftermath of the deadliest outbreak of foodborne disease in a decade, the Republican leadership of the powerful Oversight panel is being challenged to hold more hearings.

Representatives Henry A. Waxman and Diana DeGette, respectively the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, are requesting that their majority counterparts conduct an investigation and hearing into the the current outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes attributed to cantaloupes.

Waxman and DeGette wrote Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Cliff Stearns, chairman of Oversight and Investigations, asking for a probe that would be largely focused on Colorado’s Jensen Farms, where the 1.5 million contaminated cantaloupes were grown.

“An investigation and hearing would allow us to learn about the causes and understand actions that could be taken by industry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent similar outbreaks in the future,” they wrote.

Whether or not such an investigation goes forward is a question that will be decided by the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Meghan Kolossa, spokesman for Chairman Upton, R-MI.  

Neither Michigan nor Florida, home of Rep. Stearns, are among the 19 states that have been impacted by the Listeria outbreak.  Waxman’s California has seen one case, and DeGette’s Colorado is Ground Zero for the outbreak with the most cases, 17, and the cantaloupe fields.  The state has also seen at least three deaths.

In their letter to the Republican leaders, Waxman and DeGette outlined an investigation that would require Jensen Farms to produce numerous documents, including lists of all customers who purchased cantaloupes in the past year, along with the dates they were informed of the suspected contamination.

The ranking Democrats also want copies of Jensen’s internal protocol and standards for monitoring and analysis of the produce, as well as copies of all communication between the farm and state and federal regulations.

The complete Oct. 3 letter can be found here.

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