The U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce might have substituted a photo for its brief investigation report, released Tuesday, on the outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes infection from contaminated cantaloupes at Colorado’s Jensen Farms.
That imaginary photograph would have brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen from Jensen Farms; Will Steele and Amy Gates, the CEO and executive vice president of Frontera Produce, which distributed the melons; Primus Labs president Robert Stovicek, from the auditing company; and Bio Food Safety president Jerry Walzel, the auditing subcontractor, all standing in a circle, each pointing at the other.
Roughly speaking, the 8-page bipartisan staff report revealed, after interviewing all those involved, that “someone else” was responsible for the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illness in the United States in nearly 100 years.
Committee staff interviewed all of the above separately, and most of the report is a written summary of those interviews. Those interviewed were not under oath, as they would have been had the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held hearings on this epidemic, as it has for previous large outbreaks.
The congressional inquiry mirrors earlier findings by U.S. Food and Drug Administration investigators, who concluded that the outbreak could have been avoided had Jensen Farms followed existing guidance for processing melons. The FDA pointed to Jensen Farms’ modified processing equipment, and its failure to pre-cool cantaloupes to remove field heat before cold storage, as creating an environment idea for Listeria growth.
The Jensen brothers, however, told the congressional Committee they changed their equipment on advice from one of their auditors.
The farm had received high marks — a 95 percent “superior” rating — in a 2010 audit by Bio Food Safety, the Primus Labs subcontractor. After that audit, the Jensen brothers said they told auditor Jerry Walzel they wanted to strengthen their safety system.
They said Walzel recommended replacing a hydrocooler because its recirculating water, which had chlorine added, was a potential “hot spot.” Based on his comments, they said, a spray-bar roller system that had previously been used to process potatoes was purchased and retrofitted. (The FDA later said this system was not suitable for cantaloupes.)
In 2011, James Delorio, another auditor from Bio Food Safety, noted on the front page of his audit that Jensen Farms was not using an anti-microbial wash, but he did not deduct points for that omission, nor did he ask the Jensens to correct it.
Primus Labs’ Stovicek told the congressional staff investigators that the role of an outside auditor is to conduct an impartial assessment of a client’s operations — not to improve those standards or push a client toward best practices.
Primus Labs “would be a rogue element if they tried to pick winners and losers” by holding industry to higher standards, he said. He added that Primus Labs did not have the “expertise to determine which best practices should be pushed by the industry.”
Walzel blamed the outbreak on the FDA for not prohibiting the sale of unsanitized cantaloupes, and said Bio Food Safety auditors were “roped in by regulation and Primus training.” Although FDA issues guidance on processing cantaloupes, Walzel said “guidelines are opinions … regulations are law.”
Committee staff reported that information provided by Primus Labs shows “the vast majority of the thousands of audits it conducts each year receive passing grades: 98.7 percent in 2010; 97.5 percent in 2009; and 98.1 percent in 2008. Primus Labs is one of the country’s largest third party auditors, doing an estimated 15,000 audits for 3,000 clients annually.
Steele and Gates at Frontera Produce, which distributed the Jensen Farm Rocky Ford melons to more than half the country, were critical of the third-party auditors, saying the audit industry’s standards are inadequate. “I’ve always said there’s got to be more validation points, ” Steele told the Committee. “This case clearly demonstrates that.”
The Listeria outbreak has cost Frontera $500,000 in recall-related costs. The company is also being sued by many of the 146 victims in 28 states, including the surviving families of the 31 who died.
In its meetings with the FDA, the Committee staff took note of several deficiencies the agency had already documented at the Jensen Farms packing facility. These included:
– Condensation from cooling systems draining directly on to the floor.
– Poor drainage resulting in water pooling around food processing equipment.
– Hard to clean roller brushes on processing equipment (where Listeria was found).
– No chlorine or other antimicrobial solution used to wash cantaloupe.
– No equipment to remove field heat from cantaloupe before they were moved to cold storage.
The Committee report says that while this was the first outbreak of listeriosis linked to a raw agricultural product, the risks at Jensen Farms were “not new or unknown.” (Actually, Listeria -contaminated sprouts, celery and cabbage have caused previous outbreaks.)
Frontera Produce told the Committee that, as a result of the outbreak, many major retailers are now demanding testing to determine if cantaloupes are contaminated with Listeria, Salmonella or other pathogens. Primus Labs said buyers are asking auditors to take environmental swabs when examining food facilities.
Although the new Food Safety Modernization Act requires the FDA to establish an accreditation system and standards for third-party audits of imported foods, the FDA does not regulate domestic third-party auditors. But the panel noted that the standards for import audits could influence domestic audits as well.
Democrats on the Committee, in a separate letter, asked the FDA to oversee outside auditors, who they say bring conflicts of interest into what should be a food safety role.
The congressional Committee said it plans to monitor efforts by industry, scientists and regulators to reduce the food safety risks associated with cantaloupes. Those proposals are expected to be announced tomorrow at the University of California, Davis by the Center for Produce Safety and the Produce Marketing Association.