A Congressional Committee’s investigation of the Colorado family farm linked to a nationwide outbreak of Listeria last summer found that a third-party auditor gave the farm a “superior” rating just weeks before the outbreak, calling into question the reliability and credibility of private agricultural inspection firms. The outbreak was traced to cantaloupes grown on the farm.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee report says that Jensen Farms of Rocky Ford, Colorado hired Bio Food Safety Inc., a subcontractor working for Primus Labs, to evaluate its operations in 2010 and again in 2011. However, the auditor focused only on Jensen Farms’ adherence to industry standards, disregarding its compliance to U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) food safety guidance.
The Congressional probe also found that Bio Food Safety advised Jensen Farms to buy and incorporate a piece of used washing and drying equipment that likely contributed to the Listeria outbreak. Although the auditors gave it a high 95 percent rating, the company asked Bio Food Safety how it could improve the safety of its operations. Based on the advice of the auditor, Jensen Farms replaced its hydrocooler, which cleaned cantaloupes in recirculating chlorinated water, with a previously used and hard-to-clean potato washer that was supposed to wash the melons with one pass under a stream of clean water.
According to the FDA, this piece of equipment exacerbated the problem by handling the cantaloupe in the same way as potatoes, which are not eaten raw. The owners of Jensen farms thought they were improving safety when they made this modification, due to the auditor’s counsel.
According to the report, “FDA emphasized to Committee staff that the processing equipment and the decision not to chlorinate the water used to wash the cantaloupes were two probable causes of the contamination.”
In 2011, Bio Food Safety again audited Jensen Farms again and gave it a 96 percent rating despite finding some “major deficiencies,” such as not having hot water at hand washing stations and not using an anti-microbial agent in its cantaloupe wash.
The Listeria outbreak sickened 146 people in 28 states and is responsible for 30 deaths, making it the deadliest outbreak of foodborne pathogens in decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many more cases of illness linked to the cantaloupe may have gone unreported.
According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy, “Democrats on the committee, in a letter to the FDA, said the report renews concerns about the role of third-party food safety auditors,” noting that “similar episodes happened in two other recent disease outbreaks (in 2009 and 2010), in which a peanut processor and an egg producer received high ratings from private auditors shortly before their products were tied to major outbreaks.”