Insight alert: listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak that killed 32 was preventable

As ratings for broadcaster CNN continue a free-fall to nowhere, they’ve come out with a new insight: the 2011 listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak that killed 32 was preventable.

So are 99 per cent of all outbreaks.

CNN Presents on Sunday will feature an in-depth look into the outbreak which, based on a text version appearing on the Intertubes today, is a cut-and-paste job with no new analysis or insight.

“After a months-long investigation surrounding the outbreak, CNN has found serious gaps in the federal food safety net meant to protect American consumers of fresh produce, a system that results in few or no government inspections of farms and with only voluntary guidelines of how fresh produce can be kept safe.”

Those gaps have always been there and are still there.

Dr. James Gorny, the FDA chief investigator who led a team to Jensen Farms in Colorado said, "We had melons from the grocery stores which were positive for Listeria, with the exact same genetic fingerprint as we found in all of the ill individuals. We had ill individuals with that same genetic strain of Listeria. We had food contact surfaces at the packing house of Jensen Farms with the exact same, genetically matched strain of Listeria. So we had lots and lots of evidence that this was … as definitively as possible, a smoking gun, that this was the source of the contamination. … The evidence is very, very strong in this case. Some of strongest I’ve ever seen.

"What turned the operation upside-down was some significant changes they made. It was a very tragic alignment of poor facility design, poor design of equipment and very unique post-harvest handling practices of those melons. If any one of those things would have been prevented, this tragedy probably wouldn’t have occurred."

But the story of what happened at Jensen Farms, and why no one stopped the sale and shipments of the cantaloupes, also sheds light on serious problems in the nation’s fresh produce food safety net, and a voluntary system created by businesses to ensure a quality product, known as third-party audits.

No kidding.

Just days before the Listeria outbreak, Jensen Farms paid a private food inspection company called Primus Labs to audit their operation. Primus Labs subcontracted the job to another company, Bio Food Safety, which sent a 26-year-old with relatively little experience to inspect Jensen Farms.

The auditor was James DiIorio, and he gave Jensen Farms a 96% score, and a "superior" grade. On the front page of his audit at the farm, DiIorio wrote a note saying "no anti-microbial solution" was being used to clean the melons.

Dr. Trevor Suslow, one of the nation’s top experts on growing and harvesting melons safely, was shocked to see that on the audit at Jensen Farms.

"Having antimicrobials in any wash water, particular the primary or the very first step, is absolutely essential, and therefore as soon as one hears that that’s not present, that’s an instant red flag," Suslow said. The removal of an antimicrobial would be cause for an auditor or inspector to shut down an entire operation, he said.

"What I would expect from an auditor," Suslow said, "is that they would walk into the facility, look at the wash and dry lines, know that they weren’t using an antimicrobial, and just say: ‘The audit’s done. You have to stop your operation. We can’t continue.’"

But why just blame the auditors. Who bought these cantaloupes, and where was their internal expertise to assess the audit reports arriving on their desks before, presumably, the melons arrived on their retail shelves.

"These so-called food safety audits are not worth anything," said Dr. Mansour Samadpour, president and CEO of IEH Laboratories, one of the nation’s largest food safety consulting labs for industry. "They are not food safety audits. They have nothing to do with food safety,"

Samadpour said consumers should have no faith in the current system of farm audits, because farms pay for their own inspections.

"If this industry is sincere and they want to have their products be of any use to anyone, they should be printing their audit reports on toilet paper," Samadpour said. "People who are commissioning these audits don’t seem to understand that they are … not worth the paper that they’re written on."

So how best to improve the system? Legislation will do little or nothing, the auditing route has regular problems, and food safety is an afterthought in much of the commercial market in the absence of an outbreak. Suggestions? That’s a show I might be interested in watching.

A preview is below.

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About Douglas Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here. Dr. Douglas Powell editor, retired professor, food safety 3/289 Annerley Rd Annerley, Queensland 4103 61478222221 I am based in Brisbane, Australia, 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time