As we trudge along in food safety at the farm level, the sense of desperation is obvious, but there is hope and movement forward. 

Not only is the produce industry reeling from the recent food safety disasters in its products, the pressure is on in the labor market and on the economic front. Growers and packers of fresh fruits and vegetables seem just as isolated as any group in their problem. They are seeking help, and this is positive, and the answer may be a more cooperative approach. 

We in food safety must realize we are superimposing a self-regulatory and soon to be regulatory framework on an industry that has not had this to deal with.  FDA is supporting industry efforts to self-regulate, and the two together can accomplish much, but we still need produce industry specifications for suppliers based on sound science.

The article below makes a point of the need for cooperative efforts amongst industry and government. Part of that is for FDA to ensure that the standards industry uses to assure safety are effective in very diverse crops.

Some of the audio is a bit garbled, but Tony Piedimonte of Florida’s Wm P Hearne company makes some salient points about the industry stance. 

Thanks to the Packer for covering the following story. 

http://www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/Food-safety-labor-issues-discussed-at-Florida-Ag-Expo-133632553.html

While the Environmental Health professional’s role in food safety is marginalized in some places (such as in Florida, where the Environmental Health staff conduct less than 10% of the food safety inspections) there is a growing need for their involvement directed toward the safety of fresh produce.

With experience in the safety of water, land use, plans review, wastewater disposal and treatment, soils, vector control, the use of sanitizers, pesticides and the like, I believe the environmental health profession holds one of the best, tangible responses to today’s produce dilemma.

Unless adequate funds become available, the Food Safety Modernization Act, the federal response to the current public health crises affecting our nation’s primary producers, will not provide the solution.

The impact of the repeated outbreaks of foodborne illness should be a stern warning to our nation’s legislators, but they seem oblivious to the problem. When 30 people die from tainted cantaloupe, bells and whistles should be sounding in Washington; instead, its dead air in D.C.

If a terrorist attack killed 30 Americans, would our nation’s leaders say, ”We cannot afford a response…?"

If FDA cannot do this job alone (and why should they?), then we have an untapped resource in our County Public Health Units. There are over 3,000 health departments in the US, with more than enough infrastructures to support the produce food safety regulation/enforcement task, both in facilities and on farms. If properly trained, managed and funded, environmental health professionals could expand the roles they now play in protecting public health, into agriculture.

Rules must be developed and the inspection workforce needs to be trained in a somewhat new discipline, but the qualified Environmental Health Specialist has the capabilities needed now. With proper guidance and support, they can be effective in produce facilities and on farms.

In addition to our local public health professionals, there should also be an expanded role for state Departments of Agriculture and even USDA to help fill in the gaps in produce safety regulation and enforcement.

While we search for ways to prevent the next food safety disaster, consider properly funding and supporting local environmental health protection efforts. Give our county public health units what they need for the effective enforcement of laws and rules and we will see a reduction in foodborne illness.
 

Lessons Learned From Foodborne Illness Outbreaks

Part 2.  

Listeria Outbreak in Cantaloupes

 “They probably look at themselves as victims too, but as between the person who bought the cantaloupe in the grocery store, who is more of the victim? And does a grocery store have an obligation to its consumer to not sell them products that are contaminated and from entities that have limited assets and insurance. That’s why it is 100% likely that this cantaloupe outbreak is going to bring in everybody in this outbreak, including the retailers and the auditor and Frontera and Jensen Farms because that’s the only way that the victims – whom we all would agree have far less culpability than the other side of the equation – that’s the only way that these people are going to be fairly treated. But it’s going to be a battle”.  Bill Marler.

The Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe is still producing cases. Much has been written about the responsibilities of all involved and what needs to happen to correct deficiencies in our approach to food safety in produce, along with much sadness and much controversy.

As attorney Bill Marler has said in this exceptional interview in the Packer, the legal associations of the packinghouse, retailer, distributor, auditor and consumer are clear, and it is sobering.

Reflecting on Mr. Marler’s perspective, we will look at the chain of legal liability and see how it intersects with the chain of causation to see if we can learn something from these monumental, tragic and frightening events.

One must look at the disease pathway to see the intersections clearly, and it is a complex scenario with Listeria monocytogenes due to this pathogens ubiquitous presence in the environment, its likely ability to create bio-films on the surfaces of plants and inanimate objects and its propensity to cause serious illness in the immune deficient.

In terms of the infection pathway, we do not know whether the causative agent spread to the packinghouse and colonized the equipment, or the equipment was already contaminated by another farming operation due to previous use and spread to the packinghouse as pointed out by FoodSafetyNews.

What we have learned is that conditions at the packinghouse allowed propagation of Listeria monocytogenes at this site, and subsequent conditions eventually affected the entire supply chain. Additionally, contaminated products continued to be sold for an extended period, revealing our failed traceability systems .

On the packinghouse level, once the environment is contaminated, Listeria monocytogenes can spread throughout production and create niches for growth. That conditions were ripe for this at Jensen Farns is now clear, but unfortunately in hindsight.

On the product level, we know from FDA that cantaloupe is potentially hazardous, but this hazard was believed to occur only after cutting the melon.We did not understand the clear probability of the pathogen to not just colonize a melon surface, but also proliferate on it.  I believe this chain of causation probably involves growth conditions for the pathogen on the surface of the melon, probably post washing. This phenomena should have been realized, but it was not.

The temperature controls at Jensen would not have been sufficient to control LM after colonization of the melon. Growth would begin at the packinghouse cooler and continue through to the cold-supply chain. Any increase in temperatures in the supply chain would result in accelerated growth, thus amplifying the problem for the next user.

At the level of the buyer, the buyer is obliged to ensure conditions at its supplier do not render a product adulterated. The buyer should maintain controls over the supplier. These can include test of water, tests of products, independent audits, self-audits and second party audits along with letters of indemnity and guarantees. Given that the buyer receives products that may be contaminated, controls should be in place in further distribution to reduce the likelihood of any dangerous product reaching the consumer, pointing to the need for more testing nearest to the consumer level and traceability.  It’s interesting that industry has vigorously opposed the random testing of products and has effectively killed some of these programs.

That all involved in this distribution chain now bear responsibility is clear. This is not the first outbreak of a pathogen in cantaloupes. That our standards for handling cantaloupes were too low is painfully clear.

At the level of supplier control, the retail industry must start getting smarter about how to qualify its suppliers, currently the industry-required tests of finished products may be driven by a poorly defined risk assessment, or simply rely on industry practices, The bar is now raised extremely high for quality assurance in the produce industry and we should see a move to integrate technology into the food safety effort at a very high level, especially traceability and end products testing. We should see a major emphasis on water quality, in in-process tests and final tests for products, whether they be directly from a farm, from a packinghouse or from a processor. If there is a gaping hole in the producer-buyer-retailer food safety net, it’s the failure to adopt the best microbial standards and best quality assurance standards and traceability for producers.

At the level of the consumer, an acute problem arises with controlling Listeria. Refrigerator temperatures would not be able to prevent the slow the growth of LM; there have been no consumer advisories on how long or at what temperature to keep whole cantaloupes, making this a unique challenge for the consumer.

This melon’s netted surface hinders removal of LM (especially in a bio film) making washing by the consumer of little effect.  Before, during and after preparation, it is common for consumers to leave food before serving without temperature controls and to put the leftover items away at some latter time, potentially allowing proliferation in the cantaloupe meat.

Unfortunately, we have not properly educated the consumer about the intricacies of food safety and they simply do not know in every case of contaminated product hitting them, what to do.

But as food safety professionals, we should know what to do.

Events like this can trigger a bit of fear. In a twist of fate and circumstances, I was auditing a firm less than 100 miles away from the site of the Jensen Farms outbreak about a week before the fateful Jensen Farms audit. I met with farmers just like Mr. Jensen.

I have to ask myself, if I was the auditor, would I have spotted the inconsistencies in production?

Would I have understood the critical environmental factors I was seeing and understood the entire process and its role in the growth of LM?

Would I have appreciated the relationship of the factors I was looking at and reacted to the risk of the survival and growth of Listeria monocytogenes on the surface of Jensen Farms’ melons?

The answer could be frightening. No, I may not have realized the conditions were ripe for a Listeria outbreak the has killed 28 people to date.

This is a gut wrenching realization and one that has been with me since the day this outbreak began; if we are going to truly perform a valid risk assessment, we need to be carrying a very big bag of tools.

The audit instrument is best used like a surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel is best for delicately separating the good, from the excellent, from the superior. Sometimes we need a hatchet for the ones that need it, and all we have in our tool kit is a small knife.

We should ask about FDA’s prevention role, and the role a strong FDA might have played in preventing this outbreak; and ask about the regulatory scenarios moving forward. Certainly, these events point to the urgent need for FDA to come in and level the food safety playing field.  But unfortunately, no one wants to pay for the FDA to do its best work, so now the auditor, the consumer, the packinghouse, the farm the processor, the retailer and the consumer must pay.

Thanks to the strength of our legal process and the skill of our legal firms, that there will be justice in the end. This would bring closure for me, except for the fact that our public health structure is letting us down and my efforts without that crucial element will be forever flawed.

I predict we are going to see more sad stories, failures and more finger pointing, and maybe rightly so.

Lessons Learned-

If there are more hazardous facilities out there, they need to be identified, repaired, or closed.  

All produce facilities should be reviewed to make sure they have the correct infrastructure, ideally, before they are allowed to operate.

Buyers must insist on the application of the best quality assurance methods and traceability systems.

Food safety efforts from farm to table need proper financial support.

There needs to be less politics played with food safety and a cooperative effort byindustry and government to protect the consumer.

The education of the American consumer about food safety is woefully lacking.

We are now seeing huge gaps in the food safety net.  We also see the effect of the serious pathogens like E coli that have become entrenched in our food animals, thus in our food supply, and in our environment. The failure of agriculture to control E. coli has contaminated the entire food supply, our water and soil.

These events will continue and escalate due to our inability to create a nationwide food safety system form farm to fork and the propensity of these pathogens to proliferate. Glaring deficiencies exist; most notably, flaws in basic sanitation and related practices found at the farm, in restaurants, and in the transportation sector are going without effective controls. These correctable conditions if left uncorrected allow for the persistence of deadly infectious agents in food.

While we  as an industry concentrate our prevention efforts in the supply chain, remember that not addressing the starting and ending points of this chain thwarts all other purposes.

A comprehensive approach to the problem must involve a strong response by FDA to both on farm and consumer safety.  Without adequate resources, FDA cannot do this job. Without industry support for proper funding the Food Safety Modernization Act will fail. This Act crafted by industry working alongside government addresses concerns in the food supply in the most comprehensive approach yet attempted,

A double standard is evident in the lack of industry support for FDA and FSMA. This is clearly seen in a letter to congress from the American Meat Institute and its signatories.

As long as powerful political interests put political power and influence over public health, food safety in this country will continue to deteriorate. The effect on industry has already been devastating for certain groups, especially for growers of tomatoes, spinach, peanuts; and now the entire melon industry is tainted with the problem of Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupes.

The many millions of dollars defending lawsuits and untold millions lost in sales, as well as the loss of confidence of the American consumer, and the huge burden for those with resulting health care costs are compelling reasons for industry to support FDA.

Industry paying its fair share is something we should expect. Just "not wanting to pay" to ensure that there is a strong regulatory framework for food safety is not acceptable.

As the result of the release of the FDA environmental assessment at Jensen Farms, the roles of all food safety persons involved at Jensen Farms-Frontera have rightfully come under fire.  Once again the the nature of industry led food safety regulation itself (food safety auditing) is in question. 

That all involved maintain some degree of responsibility for this disaster is without question. When a disaster like this occurs, one must ask who is responsible, but also why did it occur and how can it be prevented in the future.

The produce industry is unregulated and has been since the founding of this country, and this is the primary problem. In the recent past, we have become painfully aware of the inadequacies of our industry led prevention efforts at the farm level. In defense of the effort, while much has been done, it has been a short time to change the nature of agriculture This is what we are doing by implementing food safety strategies in open air and on- farm environments. We must also change the culture; animals on farms, for example, have been a given for centuries.

Food safety auditors executing a buyer driven auditing model rely upon the certification body to develop and manage the standard that guides their work in the field. The standard is not a public health law and it is not developed like one. The auditor has no legal authority to demand records, embargo products, or close an operation, for example.

Enforcement, if you will, has been in the hands of the "buyers". They rely on third party audits, their own second party audits, letters of guarantee and the like, before make buying decisions. Buying decisions should take into account food safety, but supply and demand pressures might induce buyers to purchase from sources without a clear safety margin. However wrong this is, there is nothing illegal about this practice.

Auditors currently are not required to inform FDA of violations, but auditors are currently required to know what regulatory violations have been cited in the records of the firm, and if they were corrected. Auditors are also expected to follow the guidelines of the audit and make an accurate assessment of findings. When this is not done we must ask why.

So there is a connection between the two independent systems of food safety "regulation", but a relationship that is way underutilized.

Auditors conduct prearranged audits to evaluate the conditions of the environment, equipment, water supply, personnel, waste removal, use of chemicals, vector control, general sanitation, equipment hygiene, and structure maintenance, within a sometimes narrow scope of the audit. Regulators should be approving plants and operations in advance, then making frequent unannounced visits to determine compliance with laws and rules. They also have free range to demand any required document and inspect any licensed area. While both touch on the same items, the perspectives and powers are vastly different. The legal process should occur in cases where violations are not corrected or immediate threat to the public is found, and buyers should not purchase from unsafe sources. Auditors cannot perform these vital public health functions, nor can they the directly affect buying decisions.

Generally, FDA guidance and the available research form the basis for the audit criteria. However, issues like severity can be difficult to interpret. For example, in cantaloupes the commodity has not had the type of industry oversight we have in leafy greens or tomatoes (under market orders).  But FDA has provided guidance to the melon industry. We should mention this reference below: 

  • Using single pass (or one use) cooling water of sufficient quality for this intended purpose also may be used to cool product.

This is the source of info that indicates single pass water of sufficient quality may be used for washing melons. There is no mention of antimicrobial in this application. For dump tank or flume water, or where direct melon to melon contact occurs in common water, then treatment is indicated. Standards vary greatly as to disinfection of water, and for sanitizing various fruits and vegetables.

The risk assessments are still developing (and so are the politics involved with any industry led effort.) It is telling that according to "commodity thinking" cantaloupes fall into the class of fruits and vegetables with "inedible peels". This narrow definition ignores the other routes of disease transmission with this product. Microbial testing of products and the production environments is not a given. This is telling because in other Listeria susceptible products FDA and USDA demand stringent testing programs for the environment.

Water used in packing operations is required by the third parties to be potable. FDA has not published specifics about how to determine potability in a packinghouse environment, the references simply being for the use of potable water at the start of a washing process. Potability has come to mean that coliform bacteria are not present in a 100 ml sample. There are no guidelines for chemical parameters for safety in the potable supply and no requirements for the wells themselves to be treated or permitted before construction. No FDA requirement I know of demands that the local health departments permit, inspect, and require a certified operator to maintain the water quality.

At Jensen Farms, washwater for cantaloupes was apparently not reused, being simply a single pass wash of cantaloupe without treatment. There is nothing prohibiting washing cantaloupes or any produce in this fashion in the standard as long as the source is potable. This is room for improvement in the third party standard, but until the industry as a whole agrees on water treatment standards for these melons it is unclear how to develop them. This is now apparently a glaring deficiency, and just one amongst a myriad of things not addressed in food safety at the packinghouse level by FDA. 

In light of these problems in our food safety systems, auditors and auditing companies have stood in the gap for regulators. I appreciate FDA and its remarks concerning the training of auditors and any classes they could offer would be much appreciated. To date, however, I know of know such training program for industry auditors sponsored by the FDA that is available today. One day that might change.

We also have to thank the FDA for such a well developed theory on causation and it is perfectly clear that the focus should be on the packing environment.

Problems that existed in this plant in this situation are accurately described by FDA in its report. The evidence is clear for the propagation and spread of Listeria monocytogenes through water and surfaces, and "improper cooling" of cantaloupe. Pre cooling to remove field heat as a route of causation makes perfect sense, but pre-cooling is by no means a standard practice on farms or packinghouses in general as pointed out by FDA in its guidance.

The nature of equipment in packinghouses is subject to contamination and often hard to clean; moving heavy crates of products will deteriorate floors; draining is often a problem especially where washing flumes and spray systems are used. Some structures and waste disposal systems are better developed than others for this type of "dirty" packing work; however, there are no standards for construction of a packinghouse.

Currently, there are no regulations for the construction and maintenance of packing equipment; its design, layout or even fundamental function have no legal basis. Regulatory agencies normally have the functions of approving the designs, equipment and plumbing schedules, lighting, finish of walls and floors in a plant. Auditors rate these items according to the dictates of the standard within the scope of the audit. Of course FDA has the authority over such, and it would be best to have regulations of these items, but FDA has not exercised that authority and has only written guidance for general requirements. I appreciate what FDA has done in ferreting out the causation at Jensen/ Frontera, but it would have been much better for them to have published packinghouse rules, and been there before the outbreak to enforce the requirements they address as violations now.

Therefore, in light of these ongoing and serious gaps in food safety, the industry itself has required what it finds to be the best practices to protect itself to the extent it can. That these industry requirements are suited to the needs of the buyer is self-evident and expected. More importantly, things need to change as we understand risks better; but what a tragic way to learn.

Its sad that the farmer in this case did not recognize the difference between his potato line and a "cantaloupe line" nor the distinction between a potentially hazardous product like cantaloupes and a non potentially hazardous raw potato. In crops like potatoes, bulb onions, carrots, beets, there is dirt, the distinctions between risks of different crops do not generally drive standards. However, with melons the risks should have been identified, and the best practices possible followed, and they were not.

In a risk assessment we develop such preventive measures for a variety of crop types and information like this often comes out if properly done. But then, HACCP is not "required" in produce; but training in risk assessments should be mandatory for operators of high risk facilities and especially for auditors.

About the future of third party audits, I think we need the FDA to be conducting their own risk assessments and allow us third parties to simply be the eyes and ears of industry, and not the enforcers of public health protection in this nation.

This is not the role of the third party auditor.

 

 

Part 1

Outbreaks in fresh produce, while tragic for victims, nevertheless can have a positive outcome if we can learn how to better prevent them, or at least reduce their occurrence. This four part series will discuss the current produce outbreaks in cantaloupes, cucumbers, celery and strawberries and analyze the information that is known, with the intention of improving our food safety systems.

 

Recent breakthrough events

While the fresh produce industry in the US continues its food safety efforts, pathogens have recently broken through our safety net in diverse products such as cantaloupes, cucumbers, celery, and strawberries. These events have highlighted our immediate need to strengthen food safety systems in the entire fresh produce industry.

 

The fresh produce industry utilizes Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems based primarily on guidance from The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some producers of high risk products bolster these efforts with commodity specific guidelines developed by industry. Firms also utilize microbial sampling programs for water, environments and products, and implement traceability programs. Various agencies may have jurisdiction at the produce/processor level of the fresh produce industry, but most of the growing, packing and transportation of produce remains without consistent government oversight. The Food Safety Modernization Act gives FDA broad new authority to tighten regulations in the fresh produce industry, but the agency has not yet effectively exercised these new powers.

 

Dynamic Industry Based Food Safety Programs

In the absence of mandatory food safety rules in fresh produce, the industry has developed its own voluntary program for produce safety, including its own standards. These programs consist of science-based standards, policies and procedures, training, sampling, and the maintenance of records to support GAP, GMP and HACCP. The major buyers of fresh produce (retailers such as Costco, Wal-Mart, Publix, Kroger, among many others), insist upon the verification of these safety measures using ongoing third party, second party and self-audits. Government agencies, producers and buyers randomly test products for pathogens, and the industry conducts voluntary product recalls when pathogens are found.

 

These programs should not be static; preventive measures taken by the industry should change and adapt as we learn more about how pathogens contaminate, proliferate and survive in the chain of production from the farm to the consumer.

 

While it is not possible to know the route of transmission in every situation, we should still analyze foodborne illness outbreaks. What we do know about pathogens can be just as important as what we do not know. Achieving the ideal of a farm to fork food safety net requires a dynamic response from the entire supply chain to the problem of contamination.

 

Salmonella Outbreak in Cantaloupe

On March 22, 2011 the Del Monte Company issued a limited voluntary recall of cantaloupes from its Asunción Mita, Guatemala farm, saying they have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella Panama. Over the course of the ensuing outbreak, authorities identified 20 victims in 10 states linked to this farm by epidemiological investigative techniques.

 

In this outbreak, as in many others, investigators failed to isolate the causative agent from a suspect melon. This prompted two law suits, one against the FDA, and another against a state epidemiologist. Del Monte asserts that the epidemiological approach used to associate cases with vehicles was flawed; while investigators contend that such a rare serotype could not be caused by anything other than exposure to a common vehicle. FDA points out that almost all victims of illness purchased cantaloupe from stores supplied by the Del Monte farm in the relative time period.

 

Del Monte, as part of its case against FDA, argues that its food safety program would have prevented such occurrences. Third party audit findings from April, 2011 showed a high degree of conformance with industry standards by this facility, but auditors also found that some sanitation controls needed to be improved. Results of third party audits of the packing facility in question suggested two important corrections:

  • ·         Covering an exposed sewage ditch
  • ·         Incorporation of daily cleaning and sanitation of the dump tank

FDA #22-03 Import Alert

In July of 2011, FDA banned products from the Asunción Mita facility, concluding that they were produced under insanitary conditions and that they likely contain Salmonella. FDA recently lifted this ban.

In its import alert, FDA recommends that based on previous experience, its food safety personnel should evaluate the following risk factors:

  • ·         Safety of water used in irrigation, packing and cooling;
  • ·         Manure use and bio-solids, animal management;
  • ·         Worker health and hygiene;
  • ·         Sanitary facilities in field and packing house, disposal of sewage and silage;
  • ·         Maintenance program for cleaning, sanitizing equipment;
  • ·         Field and packing facility sanitation;
  • ·         Transportation;
  • ·         Steps taken to identify and correct insanitary conditions.

 Lessons from this event

At this time FDA has not made public its findings from the inspection of the Asunción Mita packinghouse, but some information about sanitary conditions have been reported by third party auditors. A reference for this can be found in a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Covering an exposed sewage ditch

It is not perfectly clear what the source of this sewage is, whether it is “black water”, meaning waste water from toilets and hand sinks, or “gray water” meaning spent water from other sources (wash flume water, floor drains, drainage from refrigeration, etc.).

Regardless of its source, such wastewater is a potential source of pathogens, and facilities are required to dispose of it safely.

In many regions, we rely upon sewage disposal rules written by health agencies for the collection, transference, treatment and disposal of wastewater. Ideally, there is an enclosed piping system to convey the wastewater to a treatment system before disposal of the effluent, such as into the soil in subsurface septic systems. Such effluent can also be discharged directly into a sanitary sewer if one is available, or treated in an onsite sewage treatment system before discharge into a flowing body of water.

In no case should untreated wastewater, or "sewage" as FDA puts it, from a produce operation be disposed of in a ditch, onto the surface of the ground, or discharged into a body of water.

There may be no rules for wastewater discharge in some agricultural operations, or operations may be loosely regulated. This is often the case in the developing world, or in remote rural locations. In such cases, decisions about what to do with wastewater are left up to plant personnel who may lack knowledge of sanitary wastewater disposal. Unsanitary wastewater discharges and lack of compliance with environmental regulations can unfortunately be found in some produce facilities.

Opponents of government regulation should be aware that the imposition of consistent sanitary waste disposal methods are a hallmark of public health controls. Where these are enforced, environmental exposures to sewage are greatly minimized. Where there is no regulation, such hazards are likely to be forgotten or simply not addressed and create problems.

Incorporation of daily cleaning and sanitation of the dump tank

Not all produce is washed before being packed; in this case the facility did wash its melons. The common practice of field-packing, meaning packing directly into boxes or other containers as the final unit-packaging, is common with several commodities, and has some serious concerns.

In certain cases, makeshift washing in the field occurs, such as in barns using tanks of water. In many farming areas water is a precious commodity and is reused. A tank of water used to rinse produce in a barn may remain for an entire day without changing. Thousands of individual pieces of vegetables may be so exposed to pathogens if even one unit has contaminants. To say that on-farm washing systems like this are antiquated is an understatement.

It is a mistake to assume that water used for field packed product is even potable under the meaning of the law. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides the standards for potability of water. Because there is yet no clear government regulations as to the application of potability standards to water used for washing produce, the industry relies on periodic microbial testing of water and the available research and advice of experts. Usually, the produce industry relies on tests for the coliform bacterial indicator group to gauge microbial quality. Where a satisfactory result of < 1 CFU in a 100 ml sample is obtained, the water is considered potable.

However, wash water is rarely tested “in process”, the operator assuming that periodic testing of the water source and treatment is all that is necessary. This is often the case where packinghouse operations use washing systems consisting of sprays or flumes.

The third party audit findings for this operation indicate that the facility in question “dumped” its products into a tank of water (dump tank), and that the frequencies for changing this water and cleaning the tank were questionable.

It is common to see confusion on the part of operators of produce packing facilities as to how to control the safety of process water. What the industry has done in past years to satisfy buyer demand for a product that “looks clean” may cause an exposure if re-circulated water systems are not properly tested, treated, cleaned and maintained.

We must improve our controls for process water, but questions remain: How to do we treat such water? What antimicrobial to use? And how do we test its efficacy? And very importantly, what do we do about improvised washing methods often used in field packing?

Listeria Outbreak in Cantaloupe

On September 14, 2011, FDA issued a press release to announce that Jensen Farms, a Colorado operation, issued a voluntary recall of its Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes after being linked to a multistate outbreak of Listerosis.

At this time there have been 21 deaths and 109 people have been sickened in the outbreak — including the 21 dead — in 23 states from California to the East Coast

Read more:

(To be continued in Part 2 of this four-part series).

Media types looking for a sound bite on Listeria in cantaloupes are pulling their hair out tonight.

You couldn’t ask for a more complicated scenario. Advice like “wash your hands” or “cook your foods” or “don’t cross contaminate” is nearly worthless. Here are some troubling facts

Listeria monocytogenes:

  • Psychrophilic, multiplication possible all the way to 29 degrees
  • Ubiquitous, found in almost all environments, terrestrial and aquatic
  • Found in feces of animals
  • Most problematic in ready to eat foods
  • Forms bio films on food prep surfaces that resist sanitizers, nearly impossible to remove once adhesion occurs
  • Incubation period can be days to months
  • Huge dose response curve, from 100 or less cells, to 1,000,000 or more
  • High morbidity and mortality up to 50% of cases
  • Some strains are pathogenic some are not
  • Highly virulent strains may be emerging
  • Targets immune-suppressed victims, fetuses, neonates, pregnant, those on immunosuppressive drugs, those with disorders of the liver, gut, blood
  • Attaches to nervous tissues, systemic infections 

Cantaloupes:

  • Rough netted exterior traps contaminants
  • The rind surfaces of these melons likely can support adhesion as well as colonization by many pathogenic bacteria
  • Melon meat is highly conducive to bacterial multiplication, rich in nutrients and moisture just below the rind
  • Keeps well under refrigeration
  • When cut, surface pathogens are transferred into the meat
     

Combine the two and you have a marriage made in hell.
 

Could it be that the Jensen Farms LM outbreak will be traced to contaminated irrigation water?

Looks like the Arkansas river is the irrigation source for this entire farming region through a series of diversion canals and ditches. We also have to remember that pesticides are also applied using surface water sources in some regions.

For some great pictures of water usage in this region see:

cwrri.colostate.edu/publications/cr/205.pdf

I offer this theory because the low flow rates of the river due to the drought conditions in this region, and the access of the water source to all sorts of animal vectors is a very likely exposure pathway for LM.

For a look at  NOAA drought conditions reporting in this region see:

http://www.crh.noaa.gov/product.php?site=pub&product=dgt&issuedby=PUB

The growing region is in Prowers County, in extreme southeastern Colorado.

Given the wide spread of cases over time, this points to pre-harvest contamination, as opposed to post-harvest contamination. Although its been reported that LM was found in the production areas of the packing operation, such may have been introduced through contaminated incoming products.

For the latest from CDC and the report on LM findings from the facility see:

http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/outbreaks/cantaloupes-jensen-farms/092711/index.html

I hope we get the details of this investigation. If drip irrigation is used, and there is little exposure to irrigation water except through the roots, then my theory is less plausible. 

In spite of what some people have said about the Del Monte Salmonella cantaloupe outbreak, knowing the cause of outbreaks does help prevention efforts in the future.

http://www.perishablepundit.com/index.php?date=09/07/11#2
 

We have heard the retail industry insist that more must be done by the growers to prevent these events.

www.barfblog.com/blog/150653/11/09/29/try-harder-retailer-tells-cantaloupe-growers-improve-food-safety

If we are to do more, we need to know what.

 

Its good to refelct on where we are every once in a while, this way we can benchmark the face of food safety which is changing all the time. So at mid year 2011, here are my thoughts.

I continue to be surprised by the way the microbes seem to outwit us.

We seem to be making progress in reducing the incidence of some specific pathogens, but others we cannot seem to get a hold on.

Traceability has two sides, it makes industry vulnerable when regulatory feels it needs to act, but it does reduce exposures.

The global transfer of pathogens is really astounding, countries around the globe were somehow invloved in the chain of EHEC O104:H4, but we don’t have all the facts. What we know is wherever the reservoir is of EHEC, the bug seems to be able to exploit a pathway and they do not respect borders at all. As we see this spring and summer in the Mystery in the South, this ability applies to states, counties, etc. within borders. And we have done a less than good job of identifying the vectors, vehicles and reservoirs, and controlling them. I don’t think we have the capacity to completely stop EHEC at this point in time.

Food safety, probably more so than any other public health problem, must be solved in and by the global food safety community, and the resources to do this work are shrinking.

I am still waiting to see any credible goverment-led food safety initiatives in the mainstream media. We have a lot of insightful writers going at the subject now from a variety of angles, and so there is education at some level, but not the type that has the answer for consumers. More and more, I don’t think we have the answer for the consumer. I think we need to tell consumers that and wake them up.

There is a serious backlash to regulation, we still hear about how backyard farmers are going to impacted by the FSMA when all those concerns are simply bogus. Some writers just want to exploit fear to sell copy. Writers continue to say that the local movement is the safe route, its so misleading, yet there may be a grain of truth in some of the argument, and it’s a definite trend to watch; a trend that will likely have good and bad effects. Riding the coatails of this movement are the so called "good for you but dangerous foods" like sprouts and raw milk. With advocates again appealing to the anti-regulatory backlash people.

Consumers continue to sue the food industry, which is expected after so many injuries. Litigation is becoming a real thorn for companies and we seem not to be able to prevent the hits. 

Well publicized outbreaks can taint an entire industry, sector, commodity and not just the brand, it’s all too clear.

The anti-regulatory climate is getting uglier with legislatures and industry teaming up to dismantle monitoring and control orf the food supply by government. We hear industry saying recalling products when pathogens are found, but no outbreak is occurring, is unnecessary.

Yet, the "voluntary" private sector food safety initiates push on and we may be making some headway with suppliers. Third party auditors can carry almost the same clout as regulators, and our ranks are growing. But we don’t have the police powers needed to truly protect and we only go when we are invited. In addition, we make recommendations, not requirements.

We are making some progress with primary production, maybe. Based on no major outbreaks in a while with produce, but after the fiasco in the EU, and several recalls in the last few months of produce, I can only say that I am "cautiously optomistic."

I could go on, but this is probably enough complaining, gloom and doom.

I have not had a GI infection in about 10 years now, so maybe things are getting a little better, who can say?

In Bill Marler’s blog below, he quotes Bill Bagby of Tiny Greens, who sickened scores of people for 4 months with his contaminated sprouts.

http://www.marlerblog.com/legal-cases/bill-bagby-and-tiny-greens-sprout-farm-are-full-of-well-a-fecal-bacteria-salmonella—sprouts-are-ki/

Mr. Bagby says,

"Sprouts are kind of a magical thing," says Bagby, owner of Tiny Greens, a sprout farm in Urbana, Ill. "In terms of vitamins they’re just off the charts compared to normal produce."

If this is magic, it is Black Magic of the worst kind. It is not really magic though…its make-believe. And the motive is as always… money. I wonder if Mr. Bagby believes his own statements about the health benefits vs. risk of sprouts? Does he feel eating raw sprouts is worth the risk of losing one’s kidneys?

 

This is the same ploy we hear from the raw milk industry. If Mr. Bagby was doing all he could to make a safe product, I might have some sympathy for him, but he operated an unsafe and unsanitary operation according to FDA. There is no excuse for the use of unsafe compost.

 

No responsible grower of any produce item I have ever met would do such a thing.

Mr. Bagby continues to mislead the public, he gives no evidence that his products are safer today than they were yesterday; having an "audit" once a year is not a food safety program. The changes he should have made were likely obvious and likely were put off, that is until he sickened consumers.

 

FDA’s public stand on sprouts is saddening. These officials know full well that this commodity is too risky to consume, they do not eat them, themselves. Yet, they avoid confronting the issues. After the terrible tragedy in Europe, it is now time for a shot across the bow to the entire sprout industry. We need FDA to say "get rid of the unsafe operations in your industry, make your product safely or we will put you out of business" and not, "it’s an individual decision ". When unsafe cars or tires kill people, we don’t hear Washington folks saying "buying these unsafe cars and tires is an individual decision". Its not a matter of "tastes good", or "good for you", these products are too difficult to make safely, even under the best of conditions, and they pose a continuing public health threat.

 

No respectable, conscientious retailer should ever offer sprouts for sale. A firm like Jimmy Johns seems to me, totally reckless. Even after several illnesses from their sandwiches, they continue to offer sprouts. So I must conclude it’s a popular item and thus the firm is willing to take the risk.

 

Tiny Greens constituted a public health hazard for at least 4 months when it caused the last outbreak and so my feeling is the operator cannot be relied on in the future. Does he expect his auditor to stop him the next time he takes a short cut with food safety? The next time it could be devastating, knowing what we know now about the ability of the most severe strains of E. coli to contaminate these products.

 

I am sure FDA is hoping that the sprout industry will "kill itself off", which I believe will eventually happen, but how many consumers will have to die before our public health folks will tell the American public the plain truth, "raw sprouts are too dangerous to eat".

Lets stop all the make-believe.

Hemorrhaging to death is not worth the nutritional benefits of anything…period.

The Chicago Tribune asks, What should Consumers Do About Sprouts?

The answer is easy, "don;t eat them".

 

http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/ct-met-sprouts-safety-consumers-20110611,0,4296792.story

 

The Chicago Tribune tried to portray Mr. Bagby and company in a balanced way, but I do not think he deserves a favorable spotlight for his "magical" views.