As with any outbreak, the Jensen Farms Listeria outbreak last summer and fall, which sickened 148 people in 28 states and killed 30 people, probably could have been prevented if Jensen Farms had maintained its facilities in accordance with existing FDA guidance. According to conclusions drawn in a January 10, 2012 report from an investigation conducted by the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Committee Staff, “In the case of cantaloupe processing, FDA has no specific regulations, only guidance.” (For more on the outbreak, see “Cantaloupe contamination attributed to packing facility—not fields,” on FE’s web site under the Food Safety section.)

Besides the issues already discussed in an FDA report dated October 19, 2011 on contributing factors to the Listeria contamination, FDA officials told the House committee that new processing equipment installed in 2011 and the decision to use a packing and washing technique involving non-chlorinated water were two probable causes of the outbreak. Both of these significant changes were implemented at the packing facility in 2011, according to the House report. In 2010, the processor used a chlorinated wash treatment, and there were no reported contamination issues prior to the recent Listeria contamination.

According to the House report, the processor, after a behest from its distributor, contracted with Primus Labs to perform audits in August 2010 and in July 2011. Primus Labs subcontracted with Bio Food Safety to conduct both audits. The two audits were not conducted by the same personnel. In the second audit, Jensen Farms earned a 96 percent grade despite issues with wood on the unloading and packing tables, lack of hot water hand wash and open facility doors during operating hours. The auditor, however, did note on the front page of the survey that Jensen Farms did not use an antimicrobial wash.

According to the House report, FDA does not regulate domestic third-party auditors and did not review the recent Jensen Farms audits while conducting its investigation. With respect to imported foods, the Food Safety Modernization Act requires that FDA establish an accreditation system and model auditing standards for third-party audits. According to industry observers, these standards will influence domestic auditing standards as well.

For more information, download the House report.