Food and Drug Administration officials said last week that the listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupes that has claimed at least 25 lives and sickened more than 100 people in 26 states likely was caused by unsanitary conditions in a packing shed at the Colorado farm where the melons were grown. Investigators say that pools of water and hard-to-clean equipment in the shed probably were to blame for the contamination that caused the illnesses. The report solves a mystery. It also is a pointed reminder that inspection programs can't guarantee that the food we eat is always safe.
The listeria illnesses, which began to be reported in July, are the most deadly outbreak of foodborne illnesses since a 1985 outbreak of the same pathogen in Mexican-style cheese. And while listeria is rarer than other food-related pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella, it is an attention-grabber when it appears.
Most healthy adults can consume raw foods contaminated by listeria with no or few ill effects. However, it can be dangerous and potentially lethal to the elderly, to those with impaired immune systems and to pregnant women and their fetuses. Officials say individuals in those groups are heavily represented in the recent outbreak.
Investigators now say the probable vectors of infection were workers who walked through pools of water where listeria was likely to spawn and grow. Their footwear transported the pathogen around the packing facility. Dirty equipment, purchased by the farm in the same month the infections were first reported, seems to have played a role as well. FDA officials also said the process Jensen Farms used to cool the cantaloupes might have contributed to the problem, too.
Knowing the likely cause of the listeria outbreak is important. It might help prevent similar outbreaks in the future. It is equally important, though, to learn why contamination was so widespread at a farm packing facility that apparently had passed an outside food safety audit with a score of 96 out of a possible 100 just days before the first cases of listeria were reported.
Outside safety auditors are not unusual in the food industry. Regulators can't inspect every farm and every plant in their jurisdiction. Using outside auditors is one way to help promote food safety. That system works, of course, only if the auditors are well trained and if the audits they conduct meet agreed upon standards. That's not always the case, food safety experts say.
In the Jensen case, according to those knowledgeable about the situation, the farm hired a California company to conduct a safety audit of its facility. The California company, in turn, hired a subcontractor from Texas to do the inspection. The Texas company dispatched an auditor who, according to reports, had received two one-week training courses and whose field experience apparently was limited to observing other auditors at work. He was then assigned to the Jensen audit.
The subcontracted auditor gave Jensen Farms a score of 96. Not long after the audit, FDA investigators visited the same site and reported the unsavory conditions they believe contributed to the listeria outbreak. No one involved, of course, is saying much about the discrepancy.
The president of the company hired to conduct the audit would only say that "there's lots of variations as to how people interpret unsanitary conditions." Maybe so, but conditions that can lead to a widespread outbreak of potentially deadly illnesses should not be a matter of interpretation.
The lesson to be learned from the recent listeria outbreak is that the nation's food inspection system has room for improvement. Standards should be set and met. Training and certification for auditors should be regulated and Congress should properly fund federal food safety agencies. Those steps can't guarantee a fail-safe inspection system, but they would help reassure a public understandably rattled by the listeria outbreak that the safety of the U.S. food chain remains a high priority for the government.