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FDA tracks source of Listeria outbreak to Colorado facility

11:39 PM, Oct 19, 2011   |    comments
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Wednesday morning, the FDA released a report summarizing what they found during their investigation and inspection of Jensen Farms.

The FDA says they collected 39 samples around Jensen Farms of whole cantaloupes and environmental factors like the facility, and a third of those samples taken tested positive for the Listeria strain. Most of those samples taken did match the fatal strain.

"Cantaloupe collected from the firm's cold storage during the inspection was also confirmed positive for Listeria monocytogenes with PFGE pattern combinations that were indistinguishable from two of the four outbreak strains," according to the FDA website.

The FDA determined that the following factors contributed to introduction of the Listeria strain and the possible ways the strain could have spread:

  • Introduction of the Listeria strain: There could have been low-level, sporadic Listeria monocytogenes in the field where the cantaloupe were grown, which could have been introduced into the packing facility
  • Introduction of the Listeria strain: 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
  • Possible spread of the Listeria strain: The packing facility's design allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways
  • Possible spread of the Listeria strain: The packing facility floor was constructed in a manner that made it difficult to clean
  • Possible spread of the Listeria strain: The packing equipment was not easily cleaned and sanitized; washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe packing was previously used for postharvest handling of another raw agricultural commodity.
  • Possible cause of the growth of the Listeria strain: There was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage. As the cantaloupes cooled there may have been condensation that promoted the growth of Listeria monocytogenes

The FDA did warn Jensen Farms about all of these possible causes of the Listeria outbreak. They consider the Jensen Farms Listeria outbreak to still be an open investigation.

Read the entire letter the FDA sent to Jensen Farms.

Twenty-five deaths in 12 states are now linked to Listeria in cantaloupe, the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in more than 25 years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that 123 people have been sickened, including those who died.

The tainted Colorado cantaloupes should be off store shelves by now. But the number of illnesses may continue to grow, as the symptoms of Listeria can take up to two months to appear.

The CDC on Tuesday confirmed a sixth death in Colorado and a second in New York. Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming have also reported deaths.

Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., recalled the cantaloupes last month.

"Listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures, about 40-degrees Fahrenheit (4-degrees Celsius). The longer ready-to-eat refrigerated foods are stored in the refrigerator, the more opportunity Listeria has to grow," says the FDA website.

The Colorado Department of Agriculture does not inspect farming facilities, such as Jensen Farms. The deputy commissioner says the state law prevents them from doing so.

"This is the first time anything like this has happened," Jim Miller, the Department of Agriculture's deputy commissioner, said. "If consumers aren't assured of the safety of their food, we have to do something."

But there's very little Miller and the state can do, at least when it comes to inspection. The State Legislature banned them from having the authority to inspect facilities around the state.

"It's not our choice to determine whether we want to or not. The legislature needs to make a considered policy decision whether they want the department of agriculture to do that," Miller said.

It is up to the FDA to investigate, but that process takes a long time. On Wednesday, the FDA said it planned to investigate the Listeria outbreak in Colorado in the next five to seven years.

"I certainly, of all people, understand manpower shortages and funding and that sort of thing," Miller said.

Miller says he wouldn't be in favor of having both state and federal agencies monitor facilities and farms due to over regulation. But if it's something the state legislature would support in the future, he says he would have to jump on board.

"We'll do what's necessary," he said.

How facilities are monitored is catching the eyes of several lawmakers. Wednesday, Rep. Diana Degette (D-Colorado) said there's a "critical need to conduct a thorough investigation" and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) agrees that the outbreak needs to be scrutinized "to avoid future outbreaks."

This issue could come up again at the state level when the legislature reconvenes early next year. Miller says his department does work with farmers and producers through workshops to find safer ways of conducting their operations.

9NEWS' Dr. John Torres says there are ways to try and avoid contaminated fruit and vegetables by simple washing techniques.

"Since all fruits and vegetables can come with contamination on them getting them clean is an important step to keeping you and your family healthy. The first step is to wash your hand with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before handling any produce. Also, separate the produce from other foods being prepared, especially meats. And make sure you use different cutting boards and cutting utensils for meats and your produce.

Although it might seem that using commercial cleaners or even soapy water could help, Dr Connie Savor Price, Director Infection Prevention and Chief Division Infectious Disease at Denver Health Medical Center, says it better to simply wash them under running tap water. Depending on what you are washing you might need to use a vegetable brush to get into the nooks and crannies where bacteria can lay.

This is particularly important for rough surfaces like the outside of a cantaloupe. And with lettuce or other multi-leafed produce, breaking apart the big stalk into smaller segments then rinsing it under tap water can get into the small hard to reach areas.

One very important tip is to make sure you also wash the rinds of any fruits that have them. This needs to be done before the fruit or vegetable is peeled or cut up since doing both will introduce bacteria into the inside of the fruit where it becomes much more difficult to get rid of.

Dr. Price also says that prepackaged salads that have labeling showing they were prewashed can be eaten without washing. But if it makes you feel more comfortable and safe to rewash them then do that in under running tap water as well."

(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation with The Associated Press)

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