FDA – Factors Potentially Contributing to the Contamination of Fresh Whole Cantaloupe Implicated in a Multi-State Outbreak of Listeriosis

On October 19, FDA published a report detailing its findings during a September 2011 inspection of Jensen Farms production areas and packing facilities.  The full report is available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/FoodborneIllness/ucm276247.htm

In its report, FDA identified several factors that potentially contributed to the multi-state outbreak of Listeriosis associated with consuming cantaloupes from Jensen Farms.  The main findings of the investigation were:

Growing Environment:

  • Low level sporadic Listeria monocytogenes in the agricultural environment and incoming cantaloupe may have contributed to the introduction of the pathogen into the packing facility.

Packing Facility and Cold Storage:

  • 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;
  • Facility design allowed for the pooling of water on the packing facility floor adjacent to equipment and employee walkway access to grading stations;
  • The packing facility floor was constructed in a manner that was not easily cleanable;
  • The packing equipment was not easily cleaned and sanitized;
  • The washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe packing was previously used for postharvest handling of another raw agricultural commodity; and
  • There was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage.

Two particularly notable findings from this investigation were that:

  1. Listeria monocytogenes was not detected on cantaloupe in the fields (although it is important to note that the investigation took place well after the contaminated cantaloupes left the facility), and
  2. Several findings indicate that contamination in the packing facility was the most likely source of Listeria monocytogenes contamination in this outbreak.

This foodborne illness outbreak, one of the most deadly in US history, serves as a cautionary tale about the critical importance of appropriate facility and equipment design, effective equipment cleaning and sanitation procedures, and appropriate post-harvest handling practices in the fresh produce industry.  The broader produce industry would be well served to study this outbreak and its contributing factors and design processes that minimize the risk of similar outbreaks in the future.



About Les Bourquin

Professor and Food Safety Specialist Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition Michigan State University
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