Federal investigators have revealed sub-standard conditions at Jensen Farms that led to the deadly listeria outbreak, saying the company’s unsanitary cantaloupe handling ignored industry norms with dirty equipment, pooled water and lack of a cooling system. The Food and Drug Administration said its "root cause" probe at the southeastern Colorado packer showed multiple places where normal background levels of listeria likely bloomed into deadly concentrations, from a dump truck to a produce washer designed for potato farms.
Jensen is prohibited from resuming production without FDA approval and may face further sanctions. The FDA also urged cantaloupe operations in other states to take heed of FDA handling recommendations.
The listeria-tainted cantaloupe caused the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in more than 25 years. Twenty-five people have now died from the Jensen Farms cantaloupe listeria, including six in Colorado. A pregnant woman also miscarried after contracting the listeria.
Unfortunately, there are limitations in preventing future outbreaks. Even under a new Food Safety Modernization Act signed in January, packing facilities like the one Jensen used must only be inspected by the FDA every five to seven years. FDA officials said they will try to create accreditation standards for third-party auditors — often hired by the farms themselves or by grocers — to fill in gaps in federal or state inspections.
Jensen never came under a federal inspection before the August outbreak of listeria. The farm recalled all of its melons Sept. 14. Listeria cases and deaths may continue for another two weeks given the bacteria’s long incubation period.
The FDA’s warning letter to Jensen, released Wednesday, said 39 swabs were taken and tested from the Sept. 10 visit to the packing area, and 13 came back positive for listeria. The high number "demonstrates widespread contamination throughout your facility and indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility," the warning letter said.