Killer cantaloupe and the fraud of third party audits: Feel safe, now that lawsuits from Listeria outbreak that killed 33 are settled?

The legal fallout from one of the most deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness in decades has settled, according to an attorney involved in the litigation.

jensen.cantaloupe.2The Washington Post reports lawsuits involving more than 20 defendants in the outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe that killed 33 people and sickened 147 in 2011 wrapped up last week with a settlement among some of the main participants, said William Marler, a Seattle attorney whose firm represented 50 of the victims.

Terms of the latest settlement — which included the Kroger grocery chain, a large broker and an auditor — are confidential, he said. Wal-Mart, which sold melons to some of the people who fell ill, had previously settled.

The Food and Drug Administration traced the outbreak to unsanitary conditions at a Colorado farm packing facility where the cantaloupes were washed, boxed and shipped out. The owners of Jensen Farms went bankrupt and pleaded guilty to six  misdemeanors in the case.

Attorney Jeff Whittington, representing third-party auditor Primus, confirmed to the Packer the litigation against the company was dismissed.

Will Steele, president of Frontera, Edinberg, Texas, said the company is “focused on strengthening the industry’s traceability efforts.”

“The matter is in the process of being resolved,” Steele said. “Settlement documents have been exchanged with the plaintiffs, and the parties anticipate that those documents will be signed by all the required parties. However, the settlement isn’t officially concluded until that occurs. We believe a final settlement of all claims will be reached soon.”

At least 147 people became sick and at least 33 died because of listeria infections after eating cantaloupe from Jensens Farms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates at least 10 other people who had the outbreak strains of listeria had eaten the Jensen cantaloupe, but health officials had not confirmed the link when filing out death certificates.

The victims, their families, Frontera Produce, the Kroger Co. and its subsidiaries, and cantaloupe growers Eric and Ryan Jensen all contended in various court cases that Primus Group Inc., doing business as PrimusLabs, should have been held partly responsible.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThey contended the Jensens would not have been able to sell their cantaloupe if their operation had not received high marks for food safety during an audit just before harvest began in 2011.

The settlement with Kroger and Frontera will also result in dismissal of cases those two companies and the Jensen brothers had filed against Primus and Bio Food Safety, which is the third-party auditing company hired by Primus to conduct the 2011 audit of the Jensens’ operation.

Bio Food Safety auditor James DiIorio gave the operation a “superior” rating of 96%. Primus contended in various court documents that it was not hired to do any microbial testing and that the Jensens’ cantaloupe would have been sold and eaten regardless of the audit score.

Jensen Farms files bankruptcy in wake of cantaloupe listeria deaths

Kids, kids, the rock melons are back in Brisbane.

I bought three small and juicy cantaloupes Friday for $2, or $0.68 each at the fruit and veg shop. An older woman was stocking up, and said to me, “$0.68, how can you go wrong?”

I didn’t want to spoil her appetite and get into the whole-listeria-or-salmonella in cantaloupe thing. But things can go wrong.

The Denver Post reports that Jensen Farms, the southeastern Colorado cantaloupe growers who were the source of a deadly listeria outbreak last year, filed for bankruptcy Friday.

Lawsuits from the outbreak, which caused at least 32 deaths, dozens of hospitalizations and 146 illnesses, are prominent in the filings.

Jensen’s bankruptcy attorney, Jim Markus, said the filing should free up millions of dollars in insurance and other funds.

"We’re hopeful the bankruptcy process is a mechanism to help get them paid, as quickly as we can distribute it to victims," Markus said.

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.

Food safety audits ‘worthless, give false sense of security’

"You can make these audits useful by writing them on toilet paper. Then someone would at least use them. They’re worthless. They give a false sense of security."

That’s what the usually colorful Mansour Samadpour, president of Lake Forest Park, Wash.-based IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group, told Stephanie Armour of the Daily Herald in a story about the Jensen Farms linked listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak that has killed 29 and sickened 139.

But not everyone agrees.

Jim Prevor, a food industry analyst in Boca Raton, Fla., says, "The auditing system has helped improved food safety a great deal. Critics are too ready to dismiss the whole system."

Jensen Farms’ packing house achieved a score of 96 percent, high enough to be ranked "superior," according to a copy of the July 25 audit by Primus Group Inc., which does business as PrimusLabs in Santa Maria, Calif., and subcontracted the review to another party.

The facility achieved total compliance for having "floor surfaces in good condition with no standing water," according to the audit. Deficiencies found included no hot water at hand- washing stations and no documented record of training on food- security issues.

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration review of Jensen Farms after the outbreak concluded the building "allowed for water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways" creating conditions that might spread listeria. The agency also found widespread contamination and unsanitary practices.

There are no generally accepted standards for the private audits and criteria may vary from inspector to inspector, said David Theno, chief executive officer of Del Mar, Calif.-based Gray Dog Partners Inc., which provides senior-level food safety and quality consultants.

Costco, based in Issaquah, Wash., sends its own auditors as well as third-party inspectors to suppliers and has in cases refused food products because problems were uncovered, said Craig Wilson, head of food safety at the warehouse club chain, in an interview. The rejected food included a seven-layer dip, eggs, dog biscuits and a hummus product, he said.

The audit at Jensen Farms was required by Edinburg, Texas- based Frontera Produce, which arranged buyers for the cantaloupe, Jim Mulhern, a spokesman for Frontera, said in an interview. Jensen Farms selected the auditor and paid for the review, he said.

"In the wake of this experience, we are examining the role of audits and looking at possible changes," Mulhern said in an email. Frontera is looking into whether more steps are needed to validate findings, such as follow-up audits, he said.

Enough back and forth. How best to improve the overall food safety system, including audits, and especially in the wild west of fresh produce?

Pregnant Iowa woman miscarries due to listeria-in-cantaloupe

Mommies-to-be like their cantaloupe too. So the news of the first stillbirth linked to listeria-in-cantaloupe is expected, but nonetheless tragic.

The Des Moines Register reports tonight that a pregnant Iowa woman miscarried recently because of a listeriosis infection she apparently picked up from tainted cantaloupe, state health officials said today.

The unidentified northwest Iowa woman was infected with the same strain of listeria that has been spread via cantaloupe grown by Jensen Farms in Colorado.

The company’s Rocky Ford brand melons, which were recalled Sept. 14, have been tied to at least 18 deaths nationwide.

The woman told state investigators that she bought cantaloupe at an Iowa store a few weeks ago. Officials strongly suspect the melon came from Jensen Farms and caused her illness, but they haven’t proven the theory yet.

Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the department’s medical director, said that for some reason, listeria bacteria are particularly harmful to fetuses, and infections regularly cause miscarriages.

Quinlisk said about eight or 10 serious listeriosis cases are reported in Iowa each year. She urged Iowans to take precautions to reduce their risk, but she said occasional bacterial outbreaks should not scare people away from the produce aisle.

How did listeria get on, or in, cantaloupes?

With 84 people confirmed sick from listeria in cantaloupe, including 15 deaths, some basic questions remain: where did the listeria come from, why was there so much that it affected so many people, and how did the listeria come into contact with the cantaloupe at Jensen Farms in Colorado?

Elizabeth Weise of USA Today writes that cantaloupe growers, packers and sellers are not unanimous in deciding the best way to reduce the risk of listeria contamination on cantaloupes.

"There are lots of places for bacteria to bind on the surface. It’s like a mountain range under the microscope," says Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, Manhattan. But there’s not much consumers can do. If the listeria is on the rind, when you cut it open "it’s going to cross-contaminate."

About 85% of cantaloupe grown in the U.S.come from California and Arizona’s arid high deserts, where they’re watered using drip irrigation, which keeps them relatively clean. That means they don’t need to be washed before being shipped, which experts say cuts down on the possibility of one contaminated melon tainting a whole vat of them as they’re being washed.

The other 15% are grown in the South, where rain is more likely to splatter them with mud and make them impossible to sell without washing. In the winter season, November through April, cantaloupe come from Mexico and Central America, where they’re also more likely to get wet.

Bringing cantaloupes into a packing shed, where they touch surfaces that have touched other melons and may be dunked in a tank of water to clean them, "has every opportunity to reduce risk, but equal or greater opportunity to contaminate," says Trevor Suslow, a food safety expert at the University of California, Davis, who has done extensive research on cantaloupes.

Washing "is certainly a good practice, but you need to do that in an area that you won’t introduce contamination" into other melons.

Listeria is an especially problematic bacteria because it exists in the environment, in dirt and animals; once a colony starts growing on processing equipment, it can form biofilms that are difficult to remove. "They hide in the nooks and crannies," says Suslow. "You’ve got to go in with steam and stronger chemicals" to get rid of them.

Craig Wilson, Costco’s food safety director, says his company does require sellers to wash their cantaloupes, but what he’s really moving toward "in the very near future" is a test-and-hold program. Growers and packers that want to sell him melons will need to test them for a broad range of potential pathogens such as "E. coli, salmonella, listeria," and not ship to him until the results come back negative, a process that takes between eight and 48 hours.

"This not a bad industry, it’s a good industry," Wilson says. "The cantaloupe folks are great, we just need to work together to get beyond this."

A table of cantaloupe- (or rock melon) related outbreaks is available at

CDC: 55 sick, 8 dead from listeria in whole cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, Colorado

As of 5 p.m EDT on Sept. 20, 2011, a total of 55 persons infected with the 4 outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes have been reported from 14 states. All illnesses started on or after August 4, 2011. The number of infected persons identified in each state is as follows: California (1), Colorado (14), Illinois (1), Indiana (1), Maryland (1), Montana (1), Nebraska (4), New Mexico (10), Oklahoma (8), Texas (9), Virginia (1), West Virginia (1), Wisconsin (2), and Wyoming (1).

Expect those numbers to go up. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says listeriosis illnesses in several other states are currently being investigated by state and local health departments to determine if they are part of this outbreak.

Among persons for whom information is available, illnesses began on or after August 4, 2011. Ages range from 35 to 96 years, with a median age of 78-years-old. Most ill persons are over 60-years-old or have health conditions that weaken the immune system. Fifty-nine percent of ill persons are female. Among the 43 ill persons with available information on whether they were hospitalized, all were hospitalized. Eight deaths have been reported, 2 in Colorado, 1 in Maryland, 4 in New Mexico, and 1 in Oklahoma.

Collaborative investigations by local, state, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicate the source of the outbreak is whole cantaloupe grown at Jensen Farms’ production fields in Granada, Colorado.

A table of cantaloupe- (or rock melon) related outbreaks is available at