Lessons from the Listeria outbreak – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green, NCL’s Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

The recent outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in Jensen Farms cantaloupes has sickened 139 and claimed at least 29 lives. Because of its long incubation period, these numbers may continue to rise for the next several weeks. Here are some things this outbreak has reinforced and taught us.

  • Like all foodborne illnesses, Listeria is especially dangerous for vulnerable populations. This includes the elderly, young children, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women. In this outbreak, the median age of those who have passed away is 84 and four pregnant women have been affected.
  • The most unique feature of this outbreak is that it is the first time there has been an outbreak of Listeria in cantaloupe. This reiterates that while some bacteria are more common in some types of food, no food can be said to be completely safe from a given pathogen. This only makes robust safety practices that much more important.
  • While only one brand of cantaloupe has been implicated in the recent outbreak, the recall has nonetheless impacted the entire industry. This is due to the fact that in many cases, consumers do not differentiate between brands and are avoiding cantaloupe altogether. At the moment, cantaloupe growers in Arizona and California are losing millions of dollars and in some cases not even bothering to harvest their produce. The devastating impact of an outbreak and subsequent recall emphasizes the need for a focus on preventative safety measures as part of good business.
  • One of the most startling aspects of the Jensen Farm outbreak is that it received high marks in an independent audit less than a month before the start of the outbreak. Jensen Farms’ 96 out of 100 rating highlights the variability possible in third party audits and the fact that a good “grade” does not necessarily mean a firm has achieved the highest level of safety.
  • The FDA report on the cause of the outbreak cited several unsanitary conditions at the packing plant as likely causes of the Listeria outbreak. These included pooling water on the floor of the plant and machinery that was difficult to clean. The root cause investigation revealed that simple changes to the sanitary practices at the plant could have gone a long way towards preventing an outbreak.
  • The biggest takeaway from this tragic outbreak is that the produce industry needs clear regulations regarding safety practices. As part of the recently passed Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the FDA will have to establish “mandatory, science-based, minimum standards” for the production of fruits and vegetables. These standards will clarify expectations around safety practices and ensure a safer supply for consumers. For those impacted by this outbreak, these standards will come too late. For the rest of us, they can’t come soon enough.

This outbreak of Listeria has taught us many things about foodborne illness, but the most important takeaway is that good food safety practices play a vital role in preventing contamination. Only when we make food safety a priority can we hope to avoid future outbreaks.