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.”