Listeria be out there: FDA reports on cantaloupe safety inspections

Coral Beach of The Packer reports that after inspecting 17 operations, federal officials say that fresh cantaloupe packinghouses are generally following good agriculture practices even though tests at nine of the companies showed listeria contamination.

cantaloupe.handThe inspections by the Food and Drug Administration were part of the agency’s follow-up efforts after a 2011 cantaloupe-related listeria monocytogenes outbreak that sickened more than 150 nationwide and killed more than 30.

“FDA’s 2013 cantaloupe packinghouse (investigation) was intended to further inform FDA of current cantaloupe packinghouse operating practices and conditions and provide data on the expected prevalence of listeria monocytogenes in and on cantaloupes and within packinghouses’ food and non-food contact surfaces during packing, handling and storage,” according to a July 27 report from consumer safety officer Michael Mahovic, who works with the agency’s division of produce safety.

For the review, FDA only inspected “firms that pack fresh cantaloupe in a packinghouse,” according to the report. “Processing facilities, growing fields, cantaloupe that are ‘field-packed’ and firms that do not handle cantaloupe were considered out of scope.”

Initially, FDA identified 50 firms in 18 states for review, but some of those companies were no longer in business and others turned out to be distributors, not packers. The remaining 17 firms that met the review criteria received notice 24 hours before inspectors arrived.

The agency collected environmental and product samples before and after packing and used a standardized questionnaire tailored for cantaloupe packinghouses to collect information and observations about each firm, according to the report.

All 17 firms had food safety plans and all reported they were aware of the 2011 listeria outbreak and that they “took some action to evaluate or bolster their own operations, from re-evaluating their own food safety plans, to completely refitting their buildings,” according to the report.

Eight firms did not have any positive listeria test results. One had pathogenic listeria present and the other eight tested positive for non-pathogenic listeria.

“Such findings do, however, suggest the potential for (pathogenic) listeria monocytogenes to be present,” according to the report.