Contaminated Pools Cited in Listeria Spread
By BILL TOMSON
Contaminated equipment and pools of tainted water on the floor likely led to the spread of deadly listeria bacteria at a Colorado cantaloupe farm, federal officials said Wednesday.
It is the first time the Food and Drug Administration has described what likely led to the outbreak, which is the deadliest food-borne illness incident since 1985. The death toll rose to 25 people Wednesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The packing facility's design allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways," the FDA said in a report. The facility was "constructed in a manner that made it difficult to clean," the agency said.
In a letter to the cantaloupe facility, Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo., the FDA said 13 of 39 tests for listeria on facility equipment surfaces were positive for the bacteria. "These positive swabs were taken from different locations throughout the washing and packing areas in your facility, all of which were either food contact surfaces or areas adjacent to food contact surfaces," the FDA said in the letter.
The farm, in a statement issued Wednesday, said it needed time to review the FDA findings. It pledged not to resume cantaloupe production until it was "completely satisfied that we have done everything in our power to ensure the safety of our products."
Jensen Farms announced a multistate recall of millions of cantaloupes Sept. 14, a day before the FDA confirmed the farm was the source of the outbreak. There were 300,000 cases of recalled cantaloupes, containing 1.5 million to 4.5 million melons, shipped to retailers and wholesalers in 20 states.
It is still unclear how listeria got into the cantaloupe packing plant before it spread among the melons, the FDA said. It could have come from the field the melons were grown in, or a contaminated truck used to haul them.
A dump truck used to transport defective melons to a cattle ranch was parked near the open-air packing facility, said Jim Gorny, FDA senior adviser for public safety. Cattle can be a carrier of listeria, and the truck used to transport the discarded melons could have brought the bacteria back to the farm after contact with the cattle, Mr. Gorny said.
The city water source used by Jensen Farms wasn't contaminated, the FDA said. But FDA investigators are still looking into the possibility that washing and drying equipment—previously used by potato farmers—became contaminated and spread the bacteria. Mr. Gorny said there was no concern about the safety of potatoes because, in general, they aren't eaten raw.
The safety conditions at the Jensen Farms packing facility come under the oversight authority of the FDA, but the agency hadn't inspected the facility before the listeria outbreak, according to Roberta Wagner, FDA deputy director for regulatory affairs.
Under a new food-safety law signed by President Barack Obama this year, inspections of the facility will be required, but only once every five to seven years, Ms. Wagner said.
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