A contaminated transport truck could be the reason for the current listeriosis outbreak stemming from Colorado cantaloupe producer Jensen Farms.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that and other conclusions in a conference call today with FDA, Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Colorado State officials.
Alongside low level listeria in the cantaloupe field, a truck transporting deformed cantaloupe to a cow farm could have introduced listeria to the packing plant at Jensen Farms upon its return.
Sherri McGarry, senior advisor for the FDA CORE Network, said five of 10 cantaloupe samples tested positive for listeria while the packing surfaces at Jensen Farms tested positive for three of the four strains of listeria collected from patients.
Although Jensen Farms cantaloupe is believed to be out of the retail stream, listeria could remain a problem for the country for several more weeks.
“It’s too soon to declare the outbreak over,” said Dr. Barbara Mahon of the CDC. “We need to monitor it for two weeks.” Listeria has an incubation period of up to 60 days after the consumer is exposed to it until when they get sick.
Mahon said this listeriosis outbreak is the deadliest food-borne illness outbreak in 25 years. The silver lining of the outbreak, which has claimed 25 lives to date, is that scientists and the government identified cantaloupe as a “new food vehicle for Listeria that we didn’t know about before,” said Mahon.
The FDA began its investigation of Jensen Farms on Sept. 10. Colorado began its investigation on Aug. 29 when their Department of Public Health and Environment received two reports of listeriosis. Calls to the FDA about the downtime between the investigations were not returned by the time of publication.
Since the original announcement on Sept. 14, fruit salad by Carol’s Cuts and another by Fresh Fruits Ups were recalled for for having Jensen Farms cantaloupe. The FDA has yet to officially comment on the downtime between the three recalls.
Siobhan DeLancey, press officer for the FDA, said that it’s possible that Carol’s Cuts and Fresh Fruit Ups had cantaloupe sourced from different areas, which is why it took them longer to announce their recalls, further illustrating the nationwide concern about from where and how long it takes food to get from the farm to the grocery store.
Although Jensen Farms is not currently operating, Robert Wagner of the Office of Regulatory Affairs said the farm made a voluntarily commitment to notify the FDA before operating again.
“We will perform inspections and sampling. Jensen Farms committed to not distribute products until we collectively believe it’s safe. We’re still considering our enforcement actions,” he said.
He added that “suspension of registration” is a potential option in the future and an authority that the FDA has.
The FDA’s warning letter to Jensen Farms described the need for the facility to improve sanitary conditions and practices, all of which they agreed to.
Although Jensen Farms stopped updating their Facebook page on Oct. 11 at the advice of their counsel, they did receive positive support from their community, thanking them for the recall news.
“Thank You 4 the update & my heart goes out to all,” wrote one follower.
Also on the consumer side, Delancey noted that consumers purchasing cantaloupe today should feel safe; but they should discard any cantaloupe they’re not entirely sure did not come from Jensen Farms. Listeria can go airborne, so the FDA and CDC recommend thoroughly cleaning the area a potentially contaminated cantaloupe was kept in.
Listeria symptoms include fever and muscle aches, which are sometimes preceded by diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems. Meningitis can also be a result of listeria, as can miscarriage in pregnant women. The people with the highest risk include the elderly, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems.