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Publisher’s Platform: ‘The Brunt of This’

Since “organicfarmer” posted this comment on Food Safety News last week, I have not been able to shake it from my head:

“It’s really sad that farms and farmers are getting the brunt of this. I am sad these people died, but median age of 78…. give me a break. I my opinion there is no possible way to make all food safe for all people. I grow food, take extreme precautions to keep the farm as clean from pathogens as possible, but these bacteria are everywhere in the soil. Advances in science are a double edged sword. People have succumbed from so-called food poisons since the beginning of time. It’s probably good common sense to not eat raw foods if you’re old or have a compromised immune system. Now pathogenic bacteria have been found inside the cells of lettuce. No amount of washing will ‘clean’ it.”

Perhaps because I spent most of the last week talking to families whose parents or spouses are fighting for their lives or have died too soon – because they ate a damn cantaloupe — or perhaps because I am about to drive out to see by 80-plus-year-old parents, I find “organicfamer”‘s comments insensitive at best.

Certainly his attitude toward the elderly makes me wonder who purchases his farm products?  Frankly, I would take a pass.

Of course, his response to me calling him out on his “shit happens” approach to life is to trot out how bad lawyers are and to say about me: “I resent him and all he stands for.”

Dear Mr. Unnamed “organicfarmer,” this is what I stand for: people should not be sickened and/or die from eating cantaloupe. Here is just a sample of people injured who have the courage to stick up for themselves and other consumers by filing lawsuits, and using their names openly:

William T. Beach (pictured with his family below) consumed cantaloupe in early August. Mr. Beach subsequently fell ill and on approximately Aug. 28, was taken to the hospital by ambulance after his wife, Monette, found him collapsed on the living room floor, unable to speak or breathe regularly.

William T.jpg

Mr. Beach was discharged from the hospital two days later, but his condition worsened and he was again rushed to the hospital, where he died after a failed intubation procedure. The Oklahoma State Department of Health later contacted one of Mr. Beach’s six daughters to inform them that Mr. Beach had tested positive for Listeria and died from his infection.

Clarence Wells, consumed cantaloupe on multiple occasions before becoming ill with symptoms of Listeria infection on Aug. 23, 2011. By Aug. 25, Mr. Wells had gained 9 pounds from fluid retention and had begun having difficulty breathing. He was taken to the emergency room, and was admitted to John’s Hopkins Medical Center later that day. On the morning of Aug. 31, Mr. Wells’ condition deteriorated and his family was called to the hospital, where they found him unconscious. They never spoke to him, or saw him awake, again. Mr. Wells, pictured with his family, died the evening of Aug. 31, 2011.

Clarence Wells.jpg

Juanita Gomez consumed cantaloupe purchased from a local grocery store in early August. By Aug. 20, Mrs. Gomez became ill and developed a fever. When her symptoms progressed, she was taken to the hospital where her temperature measured 105.6 degrees F, her eyes became glassy, and she was unable to respond to simple questions. Tests later confirmed she had been infected with the same strain of Listeria linked to the ongoing outbreak that has been traced to defendant Jensen Farms’ Rocky Ford cantaloupe. Mrs. Gomez was released from the hospital on Aug. 24 and continues to recover at her home.

Gomez1.jpg

Charles Palmer consumed the Listeria-contaminated cantaloupe in mid-August. He had purchased one whole cantaloupe at the Wal-Mart store located on Razorback Road in Colorado Springs several days before. He fell ill with symptoms of listeriosis, the illness caused by Listeria infection, including headache and fatigue, on Aug. 30. The next morning, Mr. Palmer’s wife found him unresponsive and immediately rushed her husband to the hospital, where he has remained ever since. He has tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, the strain involved in the cantaloupe outbreak.

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Herbert Stevens and his wife purchased Jensen Farms-grown Rocky Ford cantaloupe from a Littleton grocery store in early August. On Aug. 24, 84-year-old Mr. Stevens fell ill with symptoms of listeriosis and became incapacitated. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where he tested positive for the same strain of Listeria that is involved in the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak. Mr. Stevens remained hospitalized until several days ago, when he was transferred to a long-term care facility. It is not clear if he will be able to return home.

And, “organicfarmer,” I have spoken to dozens of others — the family of an 80-year-old who needlessly died in Nebraska, the family of a 56-year-old who died in Kansas, others who became ill and are struggling to recover, or the ones still in ICU on life support who will soon raise the CDC death toll.

Mr. “organicfarmer,” there are a lot of people who hate me — mostly those who work for corporations who poison people — and, honestly, I really do not give a damn. Mr. “organicfamer,” you may hate me along with the Cargills, Doles, et al of the world – you, my friend are in fine company.

Here is AP’s “For Listeria victims, sudden turns for the worse” that just crossed the wire.

© Food Safety News
  • Danae in Maryland

    Mr Organic Farmer is extremely insensitive and his comments are disgraceful. It is true, however, that the problem does not lie solely with farmers and food processors. The problem is that the public has voted by every dollar spent at the grocery store to have less expensive food and compromised several degrees of quality. Certainly, cantaloupes can be grown in a way that they do not come in contact with the microbes. This would cost more, and require new technology to be developed. But it can be done. If we want a certain quality food, we must demand it. The Colleges of Agriculture will respond with new technology and the farmers will also respond by producing what consumers desire. Most of my family has made their legacy in the farming industry and I do know for certain that all farms are businesses, and they WILL respond to consumer demand. The wonderful thing about living in a free economy, is that we as consumers have a huge amount of control over our own food quality, via our purchasing power. As a nation, we need to care where our food comes from, otherwise, we have only ourselves to blame.

  • DJ

    I guess ‘organicfarmer’ considers the elderly to be expendable. An acceptable risk of doing business, maybe. I wonder if he will still feel that way when he is old and considered useless, too. There are too many people in industry who couldn’t care less if people get sick or die from their products. As long as there are profits to be made, that is all they care about. Ethics are a thing of the past. Few people have common decency, anymore.

  • Leon

    Bill,
    You know the law is based on logic and reason. What is your cause of action? A negligent tort? Negligence is failure to exercise some standard of care under the circumstances. If Jensen met that standard of care, where is the tort? If Jensen is processing the same way that every other cantaloupe grower does, where is the negligence?
    In the case of cantaloupe, perhaps growers should be running a very aggressive wash with a scrubbing component and a chemical agent. Maybe it should be steam blanched. If that isn’t the “standard of care” then where is the negligence?
    Then there is the question of comparative negligence – to which organicfarmer alluded. If the consumers had no business eating food which could be dangerous to them, what share of the responsibility falls on them? Why should the supplier be held responsible for the conduct of others? It also raises the question of the whether the food preparer is the truly responsible party. The bulk of the responsibility might lie there.
    Are you “pioneering” here – trying to change the standard of care? If so, it might be for the ultimate good, but Jensen might be ruined and/or everybody else pays for it through higher insurance premiums.
    This is reminiscent of the McDonalds coffee incident. The negligent “victim” is relieved from responsibility (although they don’t win when they are truly injured), the defendant gets screwed and only the lawyers win.
    People aren’t stupid and they have a low opinion of lawyers for a reason. They see logic and reason break down when lawyers pursue questionable causes of action and it makes them angry.
    You didn’t articulate the tort or your cause of action here, so we don’t know your motives. Personally, I respect what you are doing and I give you the benefit of the doubt. I assume you have reason to believe Jensen was truly negligent.
    Having said that, your response raises some red flags. Organicfarmer brought up comparative negligence and the fact that it may be practically impossible to have a standard of care that would have prevented this. Your response was an emotional appeal – you begged the question.
    I hope your zeal isn’t taking you over the line. Since you haven’t articulated the case for negligence, we are left to speculate.
    As for insensitivity, I’m with organicfarmer. I’m old enough to have witnessed plenty of misery and death on this planet and to realize that we are dropping like flies from the day we are born. That is inescapable. It makes me sad to think of it, but I’m not going to surrender logic and reason and pick up my pitchfork over several old folks who got very unlucky primarily because they had negligent caregivers.
    Frankly, I now realize that we are all constantly being manipulated by people with various agendas and ulterior motives and it makes me redouble my commitment to keeping a cool head. On this one, I’m not buying it.
    If Jensen was truly negligent then so be it – but let’s not expect anybody to perform miracles and remove bacteria from unreachable places. The risk associated with raw food is not completely avoidable at this time and we all need to be honest about that.

  • You’all can bash me any way you want apparently, I plainly stated I was sad these folks died. I am also sad we have a system that is the way it is.
    Melons on our farm are grown on plastic. I read this magazine obviously because I want to stay abreast of every safety measure I can take to protect not only myself, but our loyal customers.
    Lawyers are trained to rely on emotions to appeal to juries, and they are expert at extracting only those facts that prove their cases.
    Let’s just think about e.coli for a moment. We are now in the midst of 131 million pounds of ground turkey being recalled. It is a simple fact that if that ground turkey is cooked properly e.coli is never a problem to a single soul. Who do you think is paying the cost of this recall? How many peoples livelihoods are involved on the negative side? How many people are making a living enforcing and or suing the firms involved in the recalls?
    This magazine is published by Mr. Marler, he is not a guest writer. He owns it.
    He can pretend all he wants I am anonymous but in order to post here I have to give my email and website address. If you click on my name you will go to my ‘cheap’ do it yourself website and learn I have been growing and selling food for 12 years.
    My mom died from sitting on an airplane, my dad sitting in a sauna. Someone should have checked on him, but they didn’t and he suffered a fatal heat stroke at a very exclusive tennis club in Florida.
    Some vendors I approach about buying our food now required 5 million in liability insurance. We only have 2 million. I sell leafy greens and salad mix, but now I only sell what I can grow inside, not out in the open. There may be crooked growers out there, but NONE of us want to make anyone sick with our produce, much less see anyone actually die from eating what we have grown for the pure love of doing it. I make about $1/hr. as a farmer. I am surely not in this business for the money. I am beginning to think I am crazy to continue growing food for any of you another day.
    All these deaths could have been easily prevented by using a scrub brush and a little bleach in the wash water and cleaning the rind of the melon before it was cut, and then following some well known precautions about using refrigeration. Granted Listeria does thrive at 38 degrees, but it is not on the inside of the melon, it was transferred there with a knife.. *that is my best educated opinion to date*
    Insensitive I am not. I volunteered for two years helping Katrina victims while my farm suffered financially during my absence while our help did the best they could, it was not the same as me being here.
    I spend many hours a week working for free in the cause of alcoholism, 79,000 die annually from excessive consumption according to the CDC. If the pen is mighter than the sword I’ll keep on writing and speaking my truth. A quote I use from time to time in my work goes like this…”The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.:
    I don’t have a law degree, in fact I am a college dropout, but I do think I have earned a PhD in the school of hard knocks.

  • “organicfarmer”, how many times when you have sold your products did you look your customer in the eye and say – “hey, my product is organic but it might have a pathogen on it that can kill you or your kid, or your mom, so here is what you need to do to make it safe?”
    Right, never.
    “Know your farmer, know your food!”

  • Michael Bulger

    “All these deaths could have been easily prevented by using a scrub brush and a little bleach in the wash water and cleaning the rind of the melon before it was cut, and then following some well known precautions about using refrigeration. Granted Listeria does thrive at 38 degrees, but it is not on the inside of the melon, it was transferred there with a knife.. ”
    Pathogens can enter cantaloupe through the stem scar or through inadvertently damaged rinds.
    Something else has piqued my interest: Cantaloupe safety tips warn against washing with detergent, as cantaloupes are porous and can absorb detergent. I haven’t been able to locate any writing directly dealing with the possibility that pathogens could enter an intact, porous rind. I’d be interested if anyone has further insight.

  • Our labels plainly state, washed once,wash before using.
    We only have well water on our farm. We don’t have access to a municipal water system. Our customers know this. Yes we tell them. I sanitize our packing house daily with a mist blower and an Oxidate solution. Counters and sinks are sanitized with a bleach solution. I keep records of all this as required by my certifier.
    I have never used manure and never will as a fertilizer. I have no animals on our farm and spent money to put in grassy waterways to route all watershed runoff around our fields. Our farm was used to train other farmers about GAP.
    Keep it up Bill. Everything here, except sweet corn and some bean crops, is grown on plastic to keep splashing soil to a minimum. WE do not use surface water in overhead irrigation systems. All surface water that goes into the drip lines is filtered. We also test our water supplies regularly. In short, we do everything humanly possible to insure our food is clean. No one even using all these practices can make an absolute claim their food is ‘safe’. These bacteria are ubiquitous.
    There is no way to make all food safe for all people. There I said it again.

  • Bill,
    You repeatedly, exclusively describe “organicfarmer” in masculine terms–“his attitude,” “his farm,” “his response,” “him,” “Mr.”–while declaring that “he” is “Unnamed.”
    How do you know that “organicfarmer” is a male?

  • Steve

    Ahem… our food system offers no 100% guarantee on the safety of any food, as pathogenic strains of bacteria contaminants are now indeed ubiquitous.
    And although the meat industry loves to shift their food safety omissions to the consumer’s kill step in the kitchen — in the marketplace there’s NO food producer or processor (organic or conventional) who ever looks any of their consumers in the eye and says their food “might have a pathogen on it that can kill you or your kid, or your mom, so here is what you need to do to make it safe?”
    And that statement too is a rank falsehood — when outside contamination has migrated inside the food or food product there’s Nothing a consumer can do to make it safe…
    At least local and identity-preserved agriculture presents “food with a face” — there’s no way to know anything about the factory-food production conditions when the product comes with yet another alluring farm-esque brand label to a supermarket shelf — and the name of the frequent-violater parent agribusiness (who is somehow, still in business) is nowhere to be found — DeCoster eggs, Cargill turkey burgers, etc, etc, etc, anyone?
    So yes, if you can’t grow your own, “know your farmer, know your food” is a primary food safety mechanism in the marketplace.

  • micrograd

    As a graduate student in food safety, I find this debate to be provacative and a good exemplification of the differences in ideology between the producer and the lawyer.
    There are no words that can express the sorrow and the grief for the loss of life and prayers are with the families grieving from their loss.
    What troubles me, and is pronounced in this debate, is the ideology associated with Mr. Marler’s outlook on the contamination of food products by pathogenic microorganisms. As “organic farmer” stated, bacteria are ubiquitous in nature. Their ability to mutate or acquire genetic variation that may be associated with novel means of survival or virulence/pathogenicity is astounding and well demonstrated recentely with the STEC O104 outbreak in Europe. Nature will press on and bacteria will evolve, continuously presenting novel problems for science to address, but will likely do so at the expense of a novel event or potentially a crisis, thereby stimulating a “call for action” or a new need to be addressed.
    The void in this ideology is quite simple… 2% feeds the 100%.
    Does anyone ever consider the fact that the farmers and producers and scientists also eat and feed their families from the same food sources???? Do you really think they are going to be lackadaisical in their efforts to produce food in the safest manner possible when they are feeding the same products to their children or elderly parents?
    The fact is that there will always be food safety issues. E. coli O157 in beef resulted in a “call to action” which over the years has resulted in an extensive effort of industry and science creating means by which to lower the public health impact by investing millions in beef safety research, novel means of intervention and consumer education to say a few. Nonetheless, it still occurs. Now, the same will happen with Listeria and Cantaloupe. Research will progress and new developments will be published and implemented that will lower the risk associated with Listeria and cantaloupe.
    However, as this is addressed, keep in mind that there will be some bacteria cells mutating and exchanging genetic variation somewhere in the world, in an animal or in the soil or in the feces of an animal destined for the soil, with which it may eventually become intimately associated with another food source through a host of unknown epidemiological variables that cannot be predicted….because noone knows it is taking place. I suppose this is good job security for Mr. Marler and for scientists and an unfortunate fact for producers.

  • Paul Nunes

    The grower’s liability is based on it’s failure to warn of the associated risks of consuming a product that may cause illness or death.
    Bill is right on the mark when he asks Mr. OrganicFarmer if he warns his customers- “Hey, my product is organic but it might have a pathogen on it that can kill you or your kid, or your mom, so here is what you need to do to make it safe?”
    It is absolutely necessary for the farmer/ retailer to tell his consumers about the risks and potential consequences of eating their products. Let the consumer decide if he wants to risk his life by eating the product.
    Currently, there may be “no way to make all food safe for all people”. But that is no standard we should be proud of. We should be working to make food safer. In the mean time, there is a way to warn people, so that they can make their own decision. Then let’s see which farmers stay in business. My bet is that those who use best practices (including testing and appropriate warnings) will do just fine.
    Also, I commend to everyone the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee” which discusses the McDonald’s case and the associated legal issues in a straight forward way. The McDonald’s plaintiff was found to be contributorially negligent; at the same time McDonald’s negligence was overwhelming– it had ignored 100s of reports of burn injuries caused by it’s super heated coffee. The plaintiff’s injuries were catastrophic.

  • Bill,
    You repeatedly, exclusively describe “organicfarmer” in masculine terms–“his attitude,” “his farm,” “his response,” “him,” “Mr.”–while declaring that “he” is “Unnamed.”
    How do you know that “organicfarmer” is a male?

  • Steve

    Hmmmmm…. Paul — do you see any food safety warning labels warning customers about potential risks on ANY commercial foods in the supermarket???
    Didn’t think so. So why then should farmers be any different??
    And meanwhile, even after repeated infractions — let’s see “which companies stay in business” — Cargill, Del Monte, DeCoster, etc. etc. — why nearly ALL of them…

  • Paul Nunes

    Steve-
    Wegmans (a large regional supermarket in the NE) has a warning label (which expressly mentions the risk of illness and death) on every package of hamburger in the store.
    The companies you mention remain vulnerable to lawsuits (and resulting negative PR) which will certainly affect their bottom lines, stock values etc. “Jack in the Box” was almost put out of business following the e.Coli outbreak in WA.
    At the same time, I agree with your basic point- If you can’t grow your own, know your farmer, know your food. I buy my food from local farmers at our public market.

  • Paul,
    What gives you the idea that, “The grower’s liability is based on its failure to warn of the associated risks of consuming a product that may cause illness or death?”
    Not according to Bill Marler nor the large number of states that have changed their product liability from tort to strict.
    Under the strict liability that Marler advocates, the food producer has no incentive with respect to its legal liability to extend itself improving the safety of its food because, no matter what the cause, if there is a preponderance of evidence that the food was contaminated during its production and caused a person to get sick, the food producer will pay for all losses.
    In addition, the producer’s insurance company may chose to pay rather than take the chance of a larger judgment.
    As I recall, Marler has only had one of his suits actually go to trial–Jack in the Box. All of the others have settled.
    Fortunately, there are some states (including my own NC) where this is not true. In all the others, being a food producer is a continuous crap shoot in which the producer can lose everything. For farmers this includes the farm

  • Paul,
    What gives you the idea that, “The grower’s liability is based on its failure to warn of the associated risks of consuming a product that may cause illness or death?”
    Not according to Bill Marler nor the large number of states that have changed their product liability from tort to strict.
    Under the strict liability that Marler advocates, the food producer has no incentive with respect to its legal liability to extend itself improving the safety of its food because, no matter what the cause, if there is a preponderance of evidence that the food was contaminated during its production and caused a person to get sick, the food producer will pay for all losses.
    In addition, the producer’s insurance company may chose to pay rather than take the chance of a larger judgment.
    As I recall, Marler has only had one of his suits actually go to trial–Jack in the Box. All of the others have settled.
    Fortunately, there are some states (including my own NC) where this is not true. In all the others, being a food producer is a continuous crap shoot in which the producer can lose everything. For farmers this includes the farm

  • Leon

    Guys,
    let’s be honest here. We’ve had this escalating warning label situation for decades now and can you say that anybody pays attention to them? In California even our gasoline pumps have warning labels on them. What the devil are you supposed to do? Not buy gas? It is truly, truly absurd. What would you have the grocery stores do? In the produce section the sign might be “Carrots – 99c/lb WARNING – THESE CARROTS CAN KILL YOU” and next to that “Tomatoes – $1.50/lb WARNING – THESE TOMATOES CAN KILL YOU” etc, etc, etc.
    How long do you think it will be before people once again become desensitized to yet another warning label? About one week.
    Besides, the labels are the grocer’s responsibility, not the grower’s. Plus, you better believe the grocers already know the risk, so what duty does the grower have to inform them? Zero. You don’t agree? Fine. Let the producers print warning labels on the boxes. Then every single box has a warning label. What the heck is that going to do? Come on now. Think.
    As for the coffee incident, I once talked to a lawyer who told me all the same things. It didn’t change my mind. Coffee has traditionally been brewed with near-boiling water. You have always had to be careful when dealing with coffee. The woman certainly knew this but she recklessly put the coffee between her legs. As for the hundreds of complaints, when you serve literally millions of cups of hot coffee you are sure to have hundreds of idiots who carelessly burn themselves and then try to blame somebody else.
    This is important because we need to recognize that this trend has been one of increasingly needing to blame somebody else when something bad happens. It is an ugly trend that creates a perverse incentive for lawyers to encourage clients to “make somebody pay.”
    There are a great many people who think it is corrosive to our society and ultimately does more harm than good. We need to keep focused on continuous process improvement and save the righteous indignation for truly reckless food producers. For those of you who love to say “There ought to be a law!” you need to read and understand the all of the existing laws and regulations before you speak up. I’ll see you in the next lifetime because you won’t finish in this one.

  • Leon

    The following vindicates what I just said in my last comment.
    Perishable Pundit http://www.perishablepundit.com/index.php?date=10/04/11#1 is saying that Jensen was washing its cantaloupes. However, it turns out that the water actually encourages pathogen growth.
    This may very well turn out to be a case of Jensen trying to cover its backside by washing even though it probably knew that it wasn’t best practice any more. Or, maybe they didn’t believe that it was proven that washing is worse and were being conservative. Furthermore, I’ll bet they only made some relatively minor mistakes that allowed the Listeria to grow and cross-contaminate.
    That doesn’t fit so nicely into the template of the crusading avengers going after the evil greedy processor who is too cheap and lazy to pursue food safety.
    There may be some lessons learned after all of this but they probably won’t be ones everybody expects.

  • hhamil

    I have just had someone privately point out to me that I was wrong about the Jack in the Box cases. None were decided by a jury. All were settled.
    I apologize for my error and very much appreciate the correction.

  • Danae in Maryland

    Information is plentiful concerning food handling procedures for meat and dairy, but produce remains a gray area. I personally thought I knew how to handle and serve a cantaloupe, but after reading the Cantaloupe Safety 101 article I realized that I was lacking in my own procedures. I realized that my procedures are really just those that I learned from my own parents and that my procedures may or may not be effective. I have allowed cantaloupe to touch other foods in the veggie drawer, I have served it with the rinds intact, and I failed to wash the refrigerator shelf where a cantaloupe had rested. I have been guilty of breaking many cantaloupe handling rules! But the point is, I didn’t know about the rules! I had no idea I should handle cantaloupe like a raw chicken! I question whether or not I really do know how to handle any of the produce I use. I would appreciate having up to date handling procedures posted at the farmers market and grocery store. I think the public should be provided with this information at the point of sale just like packaged foods, medicine, and cosmetics. If I I share in the responsibility of making sure the produce is safe, then I want to be told about it – in writing. Fresh produce doesn’t come in a jar or box, but since it can be hazardous, it should not be exempted from some form of labeling. Other products subject to FDA laws require labeling either attached to the product or on a card near the product as in bulk items. I think it is time to include produce into the mix.

  • Harry Hamil

    I have just had someone privately point out to me that I was wrong about the Jack in the Box cases. None were decided by a jury. All were settled.
    I apologize for my error and very much appreciate the correction.

  • Paul Nunes

    Responses in no particular order:
    1– Liability can also be based on breach of warranty (the product was not fit the purpose intended, i.e. eating), product defect (negligent manufacture), negligence (failure to warn), strict tort liability etc. No doubt liability can differ from state to state.
    2– I agree that warnings have their limitations. But they also have there place. If your product can kill me in ways that are not conspicuous, I’d like to know.
    3– A food producer has every incentive to improve the safety of its food. It’s simply better business. Fewer lawsuits, mean lower costs. Also a savvy insurance company may even lower its rates for a food company with a good safety record (just like it does for safe drivers).
    4– Regarding the documentary “Hot Coffee”, I suggested that you actually watch it.