Potentially contaminated processing equipment and problems with packing and storage of whole cantaloupes at a Colorado farm likely led to the deadliest Listeria outbreak in the United States in 25 years, which has so far claimed 25 lives in a dozen states, federal health regulators said Wednesday.
Pools of water on the floor of the Jensen Farms packing facility in Granada, Colo., equipment that was not easily cleaned and sanitized and failure to cool newly harvested cantaloupes before sending them to cold storage all contributed to the outbreak, the first-ever Listeria contamination blamed on whole melons, federal Food and Drug Administration officials said Wednesday.
"We are quite confident and certain," that those factors led to the outbreak blamed so far for 123 illnesses in 26 states, said a senior advisor to the FDA's CORE Network in the Office of Foods, who spoke at a Wednesday press conference.
The news that the problem may have been prevented through basic sanitation practices stunned Jeni Exley, whose 84-year-old father, Herb Stevens of Littleton, Colo., has been hospitalized for nearly two months after a Listeria infection caused by contaminated Jensen Farms cantaloupe. He might be able to return home finally this week, said Exley, 55, whose family is suing the farm with the help of Seattle food safety lawyer Bill Marler.
"Shame on them," said Exley. "What kind of statement can I give you without being too angry? It shouldn't have happened. They had control over it."
Investigators tested fruit samples and equipment from Jensen Farms and confirmed the presence of four outbreak strains of the listeria monocytogenes bacteria confirmed in the illnesses and deaths.
The FDA said Jensen Farms, which is based in Holly, Colo., had recently bought used equipment that was corroded and hard to clean.
For example, the equipment used to wash and dry cantaloupe showed signs of dirt and product build-up, even after it had been disassembled, cleaned and sanitized, the FDA's report said. The equipment had been previously used to process raw potatoes, officials said, which could have left listeria bacteria behind.
In addition, a truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked near the facility and could have introduced contamination to the facility, investigators said. Low levels of Listeria monocytogenes in the field also could have introduced the bacteria into the packing facility. And the design of the plant allowed stagnant water to pool on the floor.