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A Speedy Cantaloupe Investigation Followed By a Slow One

Cantaloupes were the source of two deadly outbreaks over two years in two states. But the similarity between the these outbreaks stops there, because this year it’s taking longer to put the story together, in part because everything is moving slower.

Last year, Colorado put out its first health warning about the deadly Listeria outbreak that eventually sickened 147 people and led to 33 deaths on Sept. 9, and pretty much the whole story was known by Sept. 20.

The public knew the contaminated cantaloupes’ brand (Rocky Ford), the growing area (Arkansas River Valley) and the grower (Jensen Farms). They knew the distributor (Frontera), the third party auditor (Primus) and where the cantaloupes were first distributed (24 states).

We also knew with a high degree of specificity how Listeria had invaded Jensen Farms and contaminated the cantaloupe. We knew what state and federal inspectors had found on the farm, including these findings:

– Low level sporadic Listeria monocytogenes in the agricultural environment and incoming cantaloupe may have contributed to the introduction of the pathogen into the packing facility;

– A truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked adjacent to the packing facility and could have introduced contamination into the facility;

– Facility design allowed for the pooling of water on the packing facility floor adjacent to equipment and employee walkway access to grading stations;

– The packing facility floor was constructed in a manner that was not easily cleanable;

– The packing equipment was not easily cleaned and sanitized;

– The washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe packing was previously used for post-harvest handling of another raw agricultural commodity; and

– There was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage.

After Sept. 20, regulatory agencies eventually put their oral reports in writing. The size of the Listeria outbreak grew and more and more people died. But not as many as would have been the case if the investigation moved slower.

Maybe health officials take Listeria more seriously. It does have a higher mortality rate than most pathogens. Or maybe the state where the outbreak is located really does make a difference.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment made aggressive moves in last year’s Listeria outbreak.

This year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went public with the Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak three weeks ago on Aug. 17.

That was one day after Chamberlain Farms began withdrawing its cantaloupes from the market. For five days, health officials declined to name the farm doing this secret recall. Chamberlain Farms went public with its recall on Aug. 22.

The recall information, however, is less than helpful. No brand or label information or list of retail vendors was provided. It’s unclear how consumers would recognize a Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe if they ran into one. As is its practice, FDA’s response to anyone with those kinds of questions was “when it doubt, throw it out.”

FDA briefly updated its recall notice Aug. 28 with a confirmation that Chamberlain Farms cantaloupes were matched to the outbreak strain. But there’s been nothing about the farm itself.

As for the outbreak, since Aug. 30 the count has stood at 204 people sickened in 22 states, with 78 in hospitals and two fatalities.

Since then, nothing official has been released even when watermelons from Chamberlain Farms were added to the recall. That Sept. 7 announcement came through a Missouri-based grocery store chain.

FDA has declined to answer specific questions and suggested filing Freedom of Information Act requests for access to basic documents about the outbreak.

And where the CDPE pushed out information it gathered last year in something close to real time, Indiana has a different approach, declining to return calls about watermelons and cantaloupes.

The bottom line is that it is taking far longer to put together the basic outline on what’s happened with cantaloupes at Chamberlain Farms.

Where on the farm did the contamination occur?

What role, if any, did field conditions, packing sheds and transport decisions play?

Did Chamberlain provide the trucks to haul its cantaloupe and watermelon to markets?

As Food Safety News previously reported, the farm apparently owns several trucks that are licensed to haul produce in interstate commerce.

We do not know if those trucks were used to haul melons to market.

Much was learned fast in last year’s Listeria outbreak, and widely shared.

Last year’s Listeria outbreak was certainly more deadly, with 33 deaths and one miscarriage attributed to it. (In ten other deaths, outbreak strains of Listeria are named as one of multiple causes of death.)

With two deaths, details about this year’s outbreak are coming slower.

© Food Safety News