Jensen Farms hired a private, third-party auditor to inspect several changes it made to its cantaloupe packing facilities earlier in the summer just before the deadly outbreak of listeria linked to its products, but the auditor failed to recognize the problems in the plant.
Jensen Farms, based in Jensen, Colorado, hired food-safety corporation Primus Labs to conduct the audit. Primus Labs then subcontracted the work to a Texas firm called BioFood Safety, and the audit was performed in July. Although the audit acknowledged certain changes and methods that federal regulators later blamed for the outbreak, the firm gave the farm a score of 96 out of 100.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been 123 documented illnesses linked to the Jensen Farms cantaloupe since July, including 25 victims who have died, making the listeria outbreak the deadliest outbreak of food-borne illness in 25 years. Jensen Farms recalled its cantaloupe on September 14. No other cantaloupe producers have been linked the listeria outbreak.
According to a report released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last Wednesday, agency inspectors collected 39 environmental samples from the Jensen Farms facilities, and 13 of those samples were found to be contaminated with listeria bacteria, including cantaloupe taken from the company’s cold storage unit.
The FDA also found several factors that likely contributed to the introduction of listeria within the packaging facilities, and encouraged its growth and spread. According to the FDA, low levels of the bacteria may have been introduced to the packing facility from the field in which the cantaloupes were grown. Listeria may have been introduced to the facility by a truck that transported culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation, which was found parked adjacent to the packing plant.
Once inside the facility, the listeria could have been spread in a number of ways. The FDA found the packing facility’s floor design allowed water to pool near equipment and employee walkways and made it difficult to clean. Jensen Farms also began using a potato-sorting machine, which the FDA said was unsuitable for cantaloupe and also difficult to sanitize. The FDA also found that warm cantaloupes from the field were transferred to cold storage without pre-cooling, a measure that may have led to condensation and promoted the listeria’s growth.
According to the Denver Post, “Experts say there are now multiple examples of private auditors giving high scores to farms just before those farms produced deadly illness outbreaks.”
Larry Goodridge, a microbiologist and farming expert with Colorado State University, told the Denver Post that the Jensen Farms audit should raise some eyebrows. “Absolutely it raises questions about third-party auditors. The auditing industry, if you want to call it that, is not really regulated.”
Members of Congress have sent a letter to Jensen Farms requesting a briefing as part of a congressional hearing on the outbreak and have asked the farm’s owner to preserve all communications relevant to the investigation.