• Posted: November 15th, 2011 - 1:59pm by Doug Powell

    A company that provided listeria-contaminated chicken to the airline Virgin Blue, sickening 29 passengers and causing two premature births in 2009, has received the largest fine of its type in New South Wales.

    Directors of GMI Food Wholesalers pleaded guilty to 26 charges relating to the production, handling and sale of unsafe food.

    They were fined $236,000 plus legal costs, in the Downing Centre Local Court. Details of the case will be published on the NSW Food Authority's website today.

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  • Posted: October 26th, 2011 - 3:10pm by Doug Powell

    As the number of illnesses and deaths linked to Colorado cantaloupe continues to climb, the state said it will promote stronger oversight of its cantaloupe industry helping farmers create a certified label potentially backed by safety training, auditing and lab testing for pathogens.

    State Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar told the Denver Post the measures — now under discussion with farmers and agriculture experts — could help right the melon business after 28 deaths and one miscarriage from Jensen Farms cantaloupes.

    Salazar acknowledged, though, that the state does not have new resources to fund such a certification program. A new system would rely on budget shifts or payments from the farms themselves, as other industries currently do.

    • A "Colorado Proud" label, or even one specific to the Rocky Ford area, could be used by farmers who meet certain criteria.

    • Standards to earn the label would include undergoing safety training created by Colorado State University, and proof of outside audits of how those safety practices are carried out.

    • CSU extension facilities in southeastern Colorado are capable of lab testing; depending on the response time on results, farms could seek a pathogen-free lab test before harvest and possibly additional lab tests during the short cantaloupe shipping season.

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  • Posted: October 14th, 2011 - 2:57pm by Doug Powell

    Instead of picking the melons and supervising a work crew, Dora and David Elias of Mendota, California – the cantaloupe center of the world -- were unemployed — laid off along with hundreds of others as the cantaloupe listeria outbreak traced to Colorado rippled across the nation.

    Associated Press reports the pangs were particularly felt here in the top cantaloupe-producing state. Sales of California cantaloupes plummeted, even though their fruit was safe to eat. Farmers abandoned fields. Farmworkers lost jobs.

    "We can't sell the fruit," said Rodney Van Bebber, sales manager for Mendota-based Pappas Produce Company. "Retail stores are taking cantaloupes off the shelves, and growers are disking in their fruit because people are afraid to eat them."

    Federal officials quickly isolated the contamination to Jensen Farms in the Colorado town of Holly, which recalled its cantaloupes in mid-September. The tainted cantaloupes should be out of stores now because their shelf life is about two weeks.

    But farmers said the outbreak's source mattered little. In recent weeks, Van Bebber fielded more than 300 phone calls from customers asking whether his cantaloupes were contaminated. This despite the fact that the company has put California stickers on every piece of fruit; that the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board sent letters to customers informing them that California's crop is safe; and that supermarkets have put up signs explaining that California cantaloupes were not part of the recall.

    Growers are making similar efforts in Arizona, the second-biggest cantaloupe-producing state, where the season has just begun.

    Cindi Pearson of Santa Rosa Produce in Maricopa, Ariz., who started harvesting 3,000 acres of cantaloupes last week, is labeling fruit with Arizona-grown stickers. She has placed laminated

    "I say we should just quit," Van Bebber said. "There is no reason for us to keep picking."

    California-grown cantaloupes have never been linked to any foodborne illness outbreak, Patricio said. In fact, growers here funded research that helped refine their food safety practices. California and Arizona growers — who share a similar desert climate — have limited the use of water when growing cantaloupes by minimizing irrigation (it's turned off several weeks before packing), field packing the fruit and no longer dunking cantaloupes in water to cool or sanitize the fruit.


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  • Posted: October 12th, 2011 - 11:00pm by Doug Powell

    How long until it’s an Entertainment News headline:

    It’s the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years! Here’s what celebrities are doing to protect themselves!

    As I told CBS Radio a couple of hours ago, I find top-10 lists of most-dead people by food distasteful; all outbreaks are tragic, especially when a bug like listeria preys on the most vulnerable in society.

    And the lists are so U.S.-centric.

    What about Ontario (that’s in Canada): 1985, 19 of 55 affected people at a London, nursing home died after eating sandwiches contaminated with E. coli O157. Or listeria in Maple Leaf deli meats in 2008 – 24 dead.

    Or Scotland (that’s over there). 1996, 22 dead and over 500 sick from E. coli O157 in roast beef sandwiches.

    Earlier today, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that 23 people had died and 116 people had been confirmed as ill with any of the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado. In addition, one woman pregnant at the time of illness had a miscarriage.

    The deadliest-outbreak-in-25-years headlines soon followed.

    The FDA and CDC have had teams in Jensen Farms fields and packing sheds, testing the soil, water and surfaces for clues. A report on the FDA's findings is anticipated in the coming weeks.

    About 800 laboratory-confirmed cases of Listeria infection are reported each year in the United States and typically 3 or 4 outbreaks are identified. The foods that typically cause these outbreaks have been deli meats, hot dogs, and Mexican-style soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Produce is not often identified as a source, but sprouts caused an outbreak in 2009, and celery caused an outbreak in 2010.

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  • Posted: October 11th, 2011 - 8:28pm by Doug Powell

    Don Schaffner, a food scientist with Rutgers University (right, not exactly as shown, in his early years) told NPR that, "Probably a lot of people ate this cantaloupe. And a lot of people probably ate lots of (bacterial cells of) listeria. … The bacteria come in and in many cases, they'll die in the stomach.”

    But when acid in the stomach is altered, studies find that people seem to be more susceptible. For instance, taking medicines to reduce acid reflux appears to increase the risk of stomach bugs.

    "We do know that people who eat a lot of antacids or who are taking proton pump inhibitors are at higher risk of food poisoning.”

    Schaffner also said when you buy cantaloupes and other fresh food, don't wait too long to eat it.

    "One of the interesting things about listeria is that even in the refrigerator, the organism will grow and multiply."

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  • Posted: October 11th, 2011 - 5:46am by Doug Powell

     It’s not hysteria when 21 people die from cantaloupe.

    And the most important point for cantaloupe growers struggling with reduced sales linked to a listeria outbreak happens about halfway through a Denver Post article today:

    “A federal report, expected in the next few days, may clarify the outlook, said Mike Bartolo, a Colorado State University vegetable crop specialist based in Rocky Ford. Meanwhile, CSU has been designing experiments to determine the best protocol for food safety after the Holly contamination.”

    "Until we've got all the facts, we don't know how to attack it," said Michael Hirakata, whose family has grown cantaloupe here for more than 80 years and supplies major buyers such as King Soopers. "I don't want to go forward without knowing how to prevent this from happening."

    In the wake of what some in Rocky Ford call "listeria hysteria," growers wrestle with how to reclaim their good name.

    Experts traced the bacterial strain to a farm nearly 90 miles and two counties away in the town of Holly. But that operation labeled its cantaloupe with the Rocky Ford name — a practice that rankles some locals — and health officials initially warned the public away from any melon produced in this sweet slice of the Arkansas Valley.

    Talk has begun anew about precisely defining the growing region and vigorously guarding the Rocky Ford name, whether by trying to trademark it or create a certification for its melons. Disagreement among farmers over boundaries could be an obstacle.

    Grower Bill Sackett, who owns a produce stand on the east end of town, took out a paper bag and scribbled a crude map. Then he circled an area bordered by Fowler on the west and La Junta on the east — his definition of where true Rocky Ford cantaloupe originate.

    "Myself, I'm going to advertise with that circle," said Sackett, who opposes any certification process that brings more government into the mix. "And I'm gonna tell people that they're good, they're safe and they're nutritious."

    Growers already employ practices designed to prevent foodborne illness, but the listeria outbreak could trigger a campaign to document and publicize those measures to reinforce public trust.

    Good. Market food safety. And compile the data to back up any marketing claims.

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  • Posted: October 7th, 2011 - 4:52pm by Doug Powell


     As the number of people sickened with any of the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes associated with cantaloupe has risen to 109 in 24 states, with 21 deaths, media reporting and investigators are increasingly questioning on-farm food safety practices that may have led to such a catastrophic outbreak.

    Lynn Brandenberger, who has worked in Oklahoma's horticulture extension since the 1980s, has a message for farmers: Make sure your “farm is not a potential source for listeria contamination,” adding that the effect the outbreak of the illness has on the crop markets is adverse.

    His colleague at Oklahoma State University, Beth Schaefer Caniglia, an associate professor of environmental sociology, explains that when an outbreak like listeria occurs, even if it's isolated to one farm or region, understandably people tend to avoid taking the risk.

    Microbiologist Peter Muriana and horticulturist Brandenberger agree that listeria bacteria can originate from any animal source, including dogs and cats, as long as they shed any of these bacteria in their feces and then come in contact with food materials.

    Mike Ssegawa of News Oklahoma cites the OSU professors as explaining the problem is much more serious than blaming the cantaloupes from Jensen Farms. Instead, it is about observing food safety practices from where the food is raised to where it is sold and prepared for dinner.

    Wayne Whitmore, of Whitmore Farms in Coyle animals to get in contact with crops. So he urges consumers to “take some level of responsibility by washing fruits well before eating them.”

    Brandenberger said, washing cantaloupe with warm water and a brush appropriate for cleaning fruits and vegetables is helpful, though “there are no sure ways to keep listeria from contaminating fresh produce”.

    Muriana advises groceries to adhere to the “knowing your supplier” slogan, while reminding them to request letters of assurance or certificates of analysis.

    Muriana maintains the latest outbreak is an opportunity to change the way business at the farms, farmers markets, groceries, etc., is done to improve food safety.

    Farmers markets in particular, he said, lack a “nominal sanitation program or requirement.”

    (Note: Mike Ssegawa is a Ugandan journalist. He is one of the 14 food security fellows from Kenya and Uganda at Oklahoma State University on a one-month exchange program supported by the U.S. Department of State to study farming in America. The program has seen them visit farms and ranches, and job shadowing at various organizations in Oklahoma to learn skills they can share when they return to their to countries.)

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  • Posted: October 5th, 2011 - 8:02pm by Doug Powell

    Follow the poop to find the listeria.

    I keep getting asked about confined animal feeding operations or CAFOs as the cause of the listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak that has killed at least 18 and sickened 100.

    I say, all animals poop.

    The deer that caused E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks in Odwalla juice in 1996 that killed a 16-month-old child, or local Oregon strawberries in 2011 that killed one and sickened 14, had nothing to do with CAFOs.

    Neither did the sheep in 1981, which were used to crapping on a cabbage field in Nova Scotia (that’s in Canada) and led to a listeria outbreak linked to coleslaw that sickened seven adults and led to 34 perinatal infections, according to a report on the outbreak published in 1983 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

    Lisa Schnirring of CIDRAP cites Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Goodridge, a food microbiologist in the department of animal sciences at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, as saying all potential sources of contamination are being considered, including irrigation water, soil, "biosolids," and contamination from animal incursions.

    Goodridge said in the region of Colorado where cantaloupes are grown—though not necessarily at the farm implicated in the outbreak—sheep are often grazed on cantaloupe fields following harvest.

    "If that practice was followed at Jensen Farms, then there is the possibility of sheep manure contaminating the cantaloupe with L monocytogenes," he said. A similar scenario occurred in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1981 when a listeria outbreak caused by tainted cabbage was traced to the use of sheep manure as fertilizer, Goodridge added.

    Goodridge said another puzzling aspect of the cantaloupe Listeria outbreak is that four different pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) profiles have been identified, falling into two distinct serotypes, which could suggest multiple contamination events or a contamination event from multiple sources, such as different animals.

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  • Posted: October 5th, 2011 - 7:19pm by Doug Powell

    Mommies-to-be like their cantaloupe too. So the news of the first stillbirth linked to listeria-in-cantaloupe is expected, but nonetheless tragic.

    The Des Moines Register reports tonight that a pregnant Iowa woman miscarried recently because of a listeriosis infection she apparently picked up from tainted cantaloupe, state health officials said today.

    The unidentified northwest Iowa woman was infected with the same strain of listeria that has been spread via cantaloupe grown by Jensen Farms in Colorado.

    The company’s Rocky Ford brand melons, which were recalled Sept. 14, have been tied to at least 18 deaths nationwide.

    The woman told state investigators that she bought cantaloupe at an Iowa store a few weeks ago. Officials strongly suspect the melon came from Jensen Farms and caused her illness, but they haven’t proven the theory yet.

    Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, the department’s medical director, said that for some reason, listeria bacteria are particularly harmful to fetuses, and infections regularly cause miscarriages.

    Quinlisk said about eight or 10 serious listeriosis cases are reported in Iowa each year. She urged Iowans to take precautions to reduce their risk, but she said occasional bacterial outbreaks should not scare people away from the produce aisle.

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  • Posted: October 5th, 2011 - 5:54am by Doug Powell


    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed that 100 persons infected with any of the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes have been reported to CDC from 20 states, including 18 deaths.

    Is food local when it’s distributed to 20 U.S. states?

    The cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Colorado near the Kansas border likes to bill itself as local and pesticide-free, but I’d rather buy listeria-free cantaloupe from almost anywhere. Geographical knowledge is no substitute for microbiological safety.

    U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said Tuesday that the agency is still investigating the cause of the outbreak. Officials have said they are looking at the farm’s water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things in trying to figure out how the cantaloupes became contaminated.

    What retailers bought these melons? Who did the food safety audits for those retailers that concluded thumbs up for these melons?

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