FDA Targets Jensen Farms Packing Plant As Source Of Listeria

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The Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday morning that the deadly listeria outbreak in cantaloupe was probably caused by pools of water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean packing equipment at a Colorado farm.

The outbreak was quickly tied to Jensen Farms deep in the Arkansas Valley near the Kansas border. The melons were recalled just over two weeks after the outbreak was identified, but the number of related illnesses has continued to grow.

KKTV 11 News and our affiliate CBS4 in Denver first reported this information Monday when CBS4 investigator Rick Sallinger learned about the pending FDA report. Investigators found positive listeria samples on equipment and fruit in the packing facility.

The FDA says a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked adjacent to the packing facility and could have introduced contamination into the facility. The infection could also have been brought to the facility from a low-level contamination in the field, but there was no germs found on the field.

However the deadly infection was brought to the facility, the FDA says there were a number of factors that allowed it to spread. Jensen Farms had recently purchased used equipment that was corroded and hard to clean. The agency also said the way the cantaloupes were cooled after coming off the fields may have also contributed to listeria growth.

Despite the recall, the CDC announced Tuesday that a total of 123 people were infected in 26 states. A total of 25 people have died from the illness and one pregnant woman had a miscarriage.

Bill Marler is a Seattle attorney representing several of the victim’s families. He said Monday that he believed the packing equipment is where the case is centered. “Listeria loves cool temperatures, and that’s where it grows the best, so I am not surprised that the facility may have been less than sterile,” Marler said.

The farm’s owner, Eric Jensen, confirmed that the listeria was found in the packing facility during an initial inspection, but did not turn up during a later environmental assessment.

From the field, cantaloupe are harvested then transported to the packing shed. There they are washed before being shipped, encountering the equipment that the FDA has identified.

“When you are cooling down a product and you’re getting a product wet, it’s the perfect environment for listeria contamination,” Marler said.

The farm owners insist the packing facility was cleaned regularly and don’t understand how the bacteria could have turned up on its equipment.

The FDA has issued a "warning letter" to Jensen Farms, and says they still consider this an open investigation. The CDC says they'll continue to monitor the situation, as the number of illnesses could still continue to grow for another two weeks.

All the information from the FDA report is available online at http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/CORENetwork/ucm272372.htm