Listeria monocytogenes has been found in three of 100 environmental samples and in one product sample taken this past spring at a fresh fruit processing facility in Vernon, CA.

The samples were collected by U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors who visited the Simply Fresh Fruit Inc. plant in April and May, and Whole Genome Sequencing analysis determined the four isolates to be the same strain of Listeria.

According to a warning letter dated Oct. 19 and sent from FDA’s Los Angeles District Office to William T. Sander, company president, two of the positive environmental swabs were collected in areas adjacent to food contact surfaces.

Simply Fresh Fruit logoThese included the panel surface and power switch on the side of a wash bin at the south end of a production line and a power knob for an upper conveyer belt at the north end of the same production line, FDA wrote.

The third positive swab was collected from the blade of a squeegee used to push excess water into the drain on the floor, the warning letter stated.

FDA noted that finished product from the facility was also found to be positive for Listeria this past spring.

“Your firm filed a reportable food report (RFR) and conducted a voluntary recall of a cut cantaloupe lot processed on March 28, 2016, and packed on March 29, 2016, due to a L. monocytogenes positive finding,” according to the warning letter.

While the Simply Fresh Fruit website details some of the company’s food safety practices, HACCP plan and inspection protocols, there was nothing posted Tuesday under a “Product Alerts” tab.

There was also no FDA notice posted regarding the company’s April 14 recall of cantaloupe and fruit mixes with cantaloupe for possible Listeria contamination, nor was that news evident on the company’s website. However, a recall notice was posted at the time by US Foods and also by the California Department of Public Health.

Simply Fresh Fruit previously recalled fresh-cut fruit products with cantaloupe in March 2008 and cut fresh fruit trays in March 2007, although those recalls were for possible Salmonella contamination of products from outside suppliers.

Simply Fresh Fruit tray
Simply Fresh Fruit recalled its fresh fruit trays in March 2007 after being notified of possible Salmonella contamination by its cantaloupe supplier.

In its responses to FDA, Simply Fresh Fruit blamed the current Listeria problem on the plant’s floor, according to the warning letter.

“You have determined your root cause to be ‘the condition of your dairy tile flooring’ and have implemented more aggressive sanitation procedures for your floors and have made corrections to your floors. We will ascertain the adequacy of your corrective actions during our next inspection,” the agency wrote.

FDA inspectors also observed a number of violations of Current Good Manufacturing Practice regulations at the Vernon processing plant, according to the warning letter.

Employees using gloves hands to cut melons then touched equipment and resumed handling fruit without cleaning and sanitizing the gloves, uncovered bins of washed fruit were stored in rooms during cleaning and sanitation operations, bin dumpers were in direct contact with wet floors, and forklifts were going through standing water to deliver pre-washed fruit to receiving areas, thereby potentially causing backsplash onto equipment and fruit products, FDA wrote.

While the company’s response to FDA addressed worker training on proper fruit storage, it did not address training regarding cross-contamination, the warning letter pointed out.

Further, the company failed to clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces in wet processing before use, and citrus build-up was observed on equipment during pre-washing and sanitation of cantaloupes, according to the agency.

“Your firm’s response states that fruit build-up will be removed upon each changeover of fruit and the drain wash bin will be drained and refilled with sanitizer solution. We will ascertain the adequacy of your corrective action during our next inspection,” the warning letter stated.

FruitSalad1MainFDA also noted that floor drainage was inadequate in areas where flooding-type cleaning was done or where normal operations release or discharge water or other liquid waste on the floor.

Specifically, standing water was observed near the drain in the low-care area of the processing facility and near a scrub brush waster machine used to pre-wash and sanitize whole fruits, the agency wrote.

FDA gave the company 15 working days after receiving the warning letter to respond with specific steps it is taking to correct the violations, including an explanation of how the firm plans to prevent future violations, or similar ones, from recurring.

Listeria monocytogenes is a pathogenic bacterium that is widespread in the environment and may be introduced into a food processing facility from raw materials, humans, or equipment, according to FDA. Without proper controls, it can proliferate in food processing facilities where it may contaminate food, the warning letter noted.

Consuming these contaminated foods can lead to a severe and sometimes life-threatening illness called listeriosis, which is a major public health concern due to the severity of the disease, its high case-fatality rate, long incubation time and tendency to affect individuals with underlying conditions, FDA stated.

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