FDA, CDC Give Listeria Outbreak Update

WASHINGTON – During a conference call Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered an overview of factors that potentially contributed to the listeria contamination of whole, fresh cantaloupes at Jensen Farms in Colorado and also provided a current count of illnesses and deaths resulting from ingestion of the tainted melons.

Figures showed that, while new cases are decreasing, they have grown since the last update a couple of weeks ago. As of Oct. 19, CDC had reported 123 illness and 25 deaths spanning multiple states.

“This is the deadliest case of foodborne illness in more than 25 years,” Barbara Mahon, deputy branch chief of enteric disease for the CDC, told the media. In the same media advisory meeting, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and other agency officials pointed out that, after an investigation and an environmental assessment at Jensen Farms, the investigation is still considered open. Jensen cooperated with a voluntary recall early, and has now committed to not distribute any product until it is deemed safe by the appropriate agencies.

The point of contamination has not been identified. However, evidence points to the likelihood that the contamination took place at the company’s packing facility.

FDA reports that the packing facility’s design allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways, and the packing facility’s design makes it difficult to clean. What’s more, a truck used to haul culled cantaloupes to a cattle operation was parked adjacent to the packing facility and could have introduced contamination into the facility.

Those are just some of the factors FDA and local and state agencies listed.

Lessons learned here will be put to use in the FDA’s development of regulations, which the Food Safety Modernization Act calls for.

One of the positive points to be made is that thanks to quick communication and collaboration between agencies, traceback was quick, recall was put into place almost immediately, and state and local agencies across the country helped alert consumers.

Commissioner Hamburg credited the cooperation and communication between agencies and between agencies and retailer for helping stop the outbreak from spreading. “The response to the outbreak was quick and effective, and we did everything possible to keep people from eating the contaminated cantaloupes,” she said.