Lawmakers continue to investigate the Listeria cantaloupe outbreak — the deadliest in decades — but no hearing is planned.

It’s been three months since contaminated cantaloupes from a single farm in Colorado generated national headlines. Twenty-six states have reported 29 deaths, and one miscarriage, among the 140 people infected with the outbreak strains of Listeria. The outbreak, the first involving Listeria contamination of fresh melons, has wreaked havoc on the cantaloupe industry, all of which has many wondering: Why no congressional hearing?

In the past few years, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (which falls under the Energy and Commerce Committee) has held a series of hearings in the wake of food safety catastrophes such as Salmonella-tainted peanut butter in 2009 and E. coli-contaminated spinach in 2006. Last fall, the subcommittee dragged executives from Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms in for public questioning after a 550 million egg recall, which was sparked by a nationwide Salmonella outbreak.

Though there was bipartisan support for these efforts, the House was controlled by Democrats. Now Republicans are in charge of the schedule and agenda.

Committee staff members have sent letters to Jensen Farms and Primus Labs, which gave Jensen a top food safety score weeks before the outbreak, and held briefings with the companies, but have not gone so far as to schedule a hearing.

“The Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been examining the listeria outbreak, including holding several briefings,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns  (R-FL), chair of the subcommittee, in a statement to Food Safety News. “We are still reviewing the circumstances which led to the outbreak and have made no determination regarding the future of the investigation.”

Representatives Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO), respectively the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee, have requested that their majority counterparts conduct an investigation and hold a hearing.

“The investigation is ongoing and the Congresswoman is hopeful that the Majority Leadership on the Committee will schedule a hearing,” said a spokeswoman for Rep. DeGette late last week.

Jeni Exley and Bev Peterson, whose 84-year-old father, Herb Stevens, Jr. was hospitalized with listeriosis for nearly two months, also want to see public hearings on the outbreak.

“I don’t understand why Congress has not scheduled hearings on the Listeria cantaloupe outbreak considering that it is the deadliest outbreak in decades,” said Exley. “Congress has acted quickly in holding hearings for other foodborne illness outbreaks, so why are they dragging their feet on this one?”

Peterson, who said she has contacted several congressional offices about the matter, pointed to the broad economic impact of the outbreak.

“Fruit rotted in the field since there was no demand, and workers were let go, losing wages … Not a good situation for our already fragile economy,” she said. “I am surprised and disappointed that Reps. Upton and Stearns of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have not yet scheduled any [hearings].”

The Committee, now chaired by Fred Upton (R-MI) released its year-end agenda last Wednsday to “cap a congressional session defined by legislative achievements to protect and create jobs, reduce the federal deficit, and protect American families.”

Upton outlined a “sampling of high-profile hearings” the committee and its six subcommittees would pursue, including, continuing its investigation of the $535 million Solyndra loan guarantee, the future of the Keystone XL pipeline, and reforming the Medicare physician payment system.

“Congress is not waiting to act on our nation’s most urgent priorities,” said Upton. “As this year draws to a close, the Energy and Commerce Committee is not wasting a moment, filling the last days of this legislative session with important bills to spur economic recovery, extend essential programs and benefits, and protect our families and communities.”

  • Paul Schwarz

    Congress and especially Republicans don’t care about food safety. This just falls into one of their narratives of privatization and underfunding the FDA. There are some serving in congress that would like our government to fail! This how we get companies like Primus! My 92 year old father contracted listeria from Jensen Farms cantaloupe. He was hospitilized for over 5 weeks and remains in a nursing facility to this day. His prospects of going home are slim at best.

  • Carlo Silvestri

    From the quoted comments of Fred Upton, it seems as if he’s trying to save his butt and get re-elected. It’s rather obvious that Congress is in absolute stasis and doesn’t want to do anything because of politics. These Republicans need to be thrown out.
    Get rid of the big money involved and get real people who care about people in, not jerks like Fred Upton, Jack Kingsley “American’s food supply the safest!” and those whose only care is their own butts! Dump Them!

  • Kathleen

    I think it’s painting with a rather broad stroke to say “Republicans don’t care about food safety”, Paul. I am fully aware of the differences in how our two major political parties feel about government intervention in our lives overall and I certainly urge (and have written my congressman) and hope that the House will investigate the Jensen Farms Cantaloupe Listeria outbreak. I do not, however, think my mother died because republicans currently control the House.
    I remain focused on the fact that she died because multiple decisions were made by Jensen Farms, Primus, and Frontera that all contributed to their listeria laced cantaloupe being in her home. They are responsible for their mistakes, inadequacies and consequences. My mother died a horrifying, senseless death to which I had a front row seat. No one should have to endure what she endured and no one should have to watch what I helplessly watched. You certainly have a right to be frustrated with Washington… get in line, it wraps around the country but in this matter, I focus blame on those who are primarily responsible for my mother’s death.
    Should Washington choose to dilute their duties by refusing to investigate this large, deadly foodborne illness outbreak then they will, indeed, share in the burden of responsibility when it happens again… and it will likely happen again.

  • Jill

    It is not something as vague as “Washington” choosing to shirk or dilute that safeguard public safety but rather a particular and determined group of legislators doing it. Choose carefully next election.
    Not being directly involved on a given outbreak doesn’t mean this lawmakers are off the hook ethically or morally.