Amid Listeria Outbreak, FDA Seeks to Improve Food Safety

September 29, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cantaloupe from Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado have the bacterium listeria and so far, the outbreak has sickened more than 72 people, and killed at least 13, in 18 states. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that cantaloupe from Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado have the bacterium listeria and so far, the outbreak has sickened more than 72 people, and killed at least 13, in 18 states. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is looking to improve food safety measures after a Listeria outbreak traced back to cantaloupes affected 72 people from 18 states. At least 13 recorded deaths have been attributed to the disease.

The incident, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the worst food-borne outbreak in the United States in the past decade.

Earlier this week, the CDC said that the affected cantaloupes are from Colorado-based Jensen Farms, which issued a recall on the melons two weeks ago. Officials have begun their investigation into the farm, which is located in Granada, Colo.

“Some of the wholesalers and distributors may have further distributed the recalled cantaloupes to food processors; it is possible that additional products that contain cantaloupe from Jensen Farms could be recalled,” the FDA said in a statement on Wednesday.

The agency added that there is no indication that the cantaloupes were distributed to other countries.

Listeriosis, a relatively rare disease caused by Listeria, causes fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, and other symptoms. It can cause severe symptoms in relatively healthy adults and poses an even worse threat to the elderly, children, and those with weakened immune systems.

It can grow and develop at temperatures as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit and can take three weeks or even longer to affect a person. The CDC says that around 1,600 Americans become ill with the disease and around 260 die each year.

“The longer ready-to-eat refrigerated foods are stored in the refrigerator, the more opportunity Listeria has to grow,” said the FDA in a statement.

The CDC urges consumers to throw away any Jensen’s Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes. And if people are unsure of the origin of the fruit, they should throw it away regardless.

Neither federal agencies nor Jensen Farms had a list of stores or retailers that may have sold the melons.

FDA Grant Aims to Improve Food Safety

Unfortunately, such outbreaks are not unusual. The CDC estimates that approximately 76 million people get sick each year from contaminated food and more than 300,000 are hospitalized. About 5,000 of these cases are fatal.

Because of increasing concerns over food safety, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently offered Alabama’s Auburn University a $6.5 million grant to strengthen the protection of the U.S. food supply. Under a five-year program Auburn will implement a national food training program based on the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act.

“Under this program, new ways will be provided where all inspectors will have equal opportunity to have training,” said Patricia Curtis, director of Auburn’s food systems initiative and leader of the FDA program in a telephone interview.

According to Curtis, Auburn’s food systems initiative provides further training for different commodities to address the varying backgrounds of food inspectors. “It’s a process,” she said.

“There is such a huge array of commodities and inspectors are usually specialized in particular areas. Continuing education is very important as there are always new pathogens,” Curtis added.

Curtis says that the training will help keep inspectors current on pathogens and educate them on different products available to deal with an outbreak.

The Auburn program will work with over 3,000 local health agencies, and coordinate with city and county officials to monitor food supplies at restaurants and supermarkets. State health and agriculture agencies will inspect food-manufacturing facilities; the FDA and other federal agencies will monitor the foods that are imported.

“Auburn will work with the FDA to strengthen protection of our food supply and improve the way we detect and respond to food-borne illness,” she added.

Before the Auburn program, food inspectors did not receive any standardized training and there were no requirements with regard to skill levels for those positions, in addition to a system to keep food safety personnel up to date on new inspection technologies, changes in laws, and regulations or developments in food safety science.

“Our long-term goal is to play a major national role in the food safety arena for the benefit of consumers and the agriculture industry,” said John Mason, Auburn University vice president for research in a press release.

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