Chlorine is a wonderful thing when it comes to sanitation; especially with fresh produce. It’s also necessary to control dangerous bacteria, so it’s mind-numbing to hear a leading third-party auditor say that, based on the recommendations of staff who are supposed to know about food safety, that water does not have to be treated with something like chlorine.
Elizabeth Weise of USA Today reports that Jensen Farms, whose listeria-laden cantaloupes have killed 26 and sickened at least 123, got a top score — 96% — from a firm auditing the plant’s sanitation practices six days before the first person fell ill.
The rating has once again helped raise questions about the credibility of so-called third-party audits, a practice used increasingly by food sellers who hire auditing companies to check the safety and sanitation of the firms that sell them products and ingredients.
The Primus audit also gave only a mention to a change in how the fruit was washed, though one of the nation’s foremost cantaloupe safety experts, Trevor Suslow, calls it "unacceptable" and a clear violation of current industry practices.
Suslow, an expert on the post-harvest handling of produce at the University of California-Davis, said he was rendered "speechless" at news that Jensen was using untreated water to wash its melons.
The problem, which Suslow called a "red flag," was a switch by Jensen to a new fruit-washing system in July 2011. According to the FDA report and Gorny, that month Jensen Farms purchased and installed a used potato-washing machine to wash its cantaloupe.
According to the audit done by Primus Labs in August 2010, it appears that Jensen Farms had previously used a "hydro cooler" system to wash and cool the melons as they came in from the field, using recirculated water that was treated with an anti-microbial to kill bacteria.
For the 2011 harvest, the farm switched to a system in which cantaloupes were washed with fresh water that was not recirculated and "no anti-microbial solution is injected into the water of the wash station," the auditor, James DiIorio, noted on the first page of his audit.
"You would flat-out never do that, absolutely not," said Suslow, who spent more than six years researching cantaloupe safety and handling. No matter how clean the source of water is, once it’s sprayed on "any kind of surface where you have multiple produce items rolling across it, you’re trying to prevent cross-contamination … so you always add something to the water."
Suslow called this a "fundamental error with just tragic consequences. We can’t know that it absolutely made a difference, but I honestly think it could have prevented the scale and scope of what happened."
Robert Stovicek, president of Primus Labs, defended the audit, saying requiring that the wash water be treated with an anti-microbial is not "industry standard" at this time. He said his auditor, who so far has done 86 audits for Primus, did a good job in that he noted on page one of the audit that untreated water was being used. "He didn’t score them down but he commented on it," Stovicek said.
Audit companies do not set standards, he said. "We’re a company out there making observations and recording them."
Suslow and others disagree. Jensen Farms was "relying on people they consider knowledgeable and expert — that’s why they’re paying them," Suslow said.
Stovicek said that putting an anti-microbial agent such as chlorine in the water "certainly would retard any kind of spread. I think Trevor’s right to question that." But the Jensen Farms staff believed they were making an improvement in the safety when they switched to their new system. After the outbreak came to light, Stovicek consulted with his staff and they told him that water that’s not recirculated isn’t required to be treated. "I think Jensen’s will now go to sleep every night for the rest of their lives thinking, ‘Would that have made a difference?’"
The problems that were found at Jensen Farms are "Packing House 101," said Stephen Patricio, chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board. "Every common surface must be cleaned, rinsed and sanitized," he said. "These are all just known, recognized practices."
"It’s just disgusting to me," Patricio said of both Jensen Farms and Primus Labs. "I think of the damage that they’ve done to our industry as the result of this oversight. No, I won’t even talk about it as oversight, it’s abuse."