The United States Attorney’s office in Denver, Colo., recently charged brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen, former owners and operators of Jensen Farms, with six counts each of adulteration of a food and aiding and abetting misdemeanor. Cantaloupes grown and packed by Jensen Farms were linked to a Listeriosis outbreak that resulted in 33 deaths and 147 illnesses. Jensen Farms, which has filed for bankruptcy, was a fourth generation family farm operation in Colorado that Eric and Ryan Jensen inherited two years before the summer of 2011 outbreak.
Listeria monocytogenes contamination of the melons during the washing, drying and packing process at the Jensen Farms’ packing shed appears to be the culprit in what became the third deadliest food safety outbreak in U.S. history and the worst in almost 100 years. This was the first time that a Listeriosis outbreak had been tied to cantaloupe.
An investigation of the Jensen Farms packing shed found a dripping condensation line allowing water to get onto the floor where the water was pooling. Samples taken from the pooled water were positive for the Listeria that sickened people. On the rolling line where the melons moved, investigators found dirty equipment used to wash and dry the melons, and it could not be easily cleaned.
The inspection also found that a secondhand washing machine designed for cleaning potatoes had been substituted to clean the melons and that the melons were not being sprayed with chlorinated water as would normally be the case. Listeria was found in samples taken from the processing line and from processed cantaloupes, but not from cantaloupes still on the farm.
This case reminds me of the Salmonellosis outbreaks associated with table eggs in the U.S. a couple of years ago and the subsequent farm investigations. We saw that egg laying farms were going to be held to the standards of a food processing facility. This expectation was probably not shared by all egg producers prior to the outbreaks and recalls, but it is now. The same type of expectation will now have to be embraced by produce farms and packers.
This raises a question for me; when does a farm become a food processor? One could argue that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set the bar at 3,000 layers for egg farms, and I suppose there will be some volume set for produce farms as well.
The Listeriosis outbreak apparently associated with Jensen Farms cantaloupes is certainly a tragic episode, but I question the filing of criminal charges against the Jensen brothers. Jensen Farms will cease to exist with or without criminal charges, but the government wants more.
“U.S. consumers should demand the highest standards of food safety and integrity,” said special agent in charge Patrick J. Holland of the FDA-Office of Criminal Investigations, Kansas City Field Office. “The filing of criminal charges in this deadly outbreak sends the message that absolute care must be taken to ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food supply chain.”
I can think of two sure outcomes of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules for produce and the “message” sent out by the FDA by filing criminal charges against the Jensens: The farms that continue to raise produce will get larger, and a lot of other farmers will sell out or switch their fields’ to grain or grass.