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Twenty-nine dead (including a miscarriage); 133 confirmed ill; 98% of victims hospitalized, according to the latest CDC figures released yesterday (October 25th).

Yet, as bad as the Jensen Farms cantaloupe outbreak has been – and it has been a nasty, lethal outbreak – it could have been worse.

Yes, you read that correctly. It could have been worse. It could have been a two-microbe outbreak.

The lab results from FDA’s initial inspection of Jensen Farms at the time of the cantaloupe recall present a picture of a packing facility that was rife with Listeria monocytogenes. Contamination of this magnitude only could have occurred in the complete absence of attention to proper cleaning and sanitation inside the packing house.

How prevalent was the Listeria monocytogenes contamination?

  • 9 out of 10 Jensen Farms cantaloupes purchased at a retail grocery store were contaminated
  • 5 out of 10 cantaloupes from Jensen Farms’ cold storage area were contaminated
  • 13 out of 39 swab samples from the processing line and packing area were positive for Listeria monocytogenes
  • 4 different strains of Listeria monocytogenes were found in the packing house environment

In addition to documenting the extensive contamination of Listeria monocytogenes at Jensen Farms, FDA also reported that the design of the packing facility was problematic:

  • water pooled on the floor near equipment and walkways;
  • the floor construction made it difficult to clean; and
  • the packing equipment was difficult to clean.

What FDA did NOT do – or, at least hasn’t reported having done – was to examine the cantaloupes and swab samples – especially the swab samples – for any microbes other than Listeria monocytogenes. Any food processing environment that is so difficult to clean might easily have become colonized by another food pathogen in addition to Listeria monocytogenes.

Imagine if Salmonella had found its way into Jensen Farms’ packing house.

Imagine if E. coli O157:H7 or some other pathogenic or toxic E. coli had found its way in.

We might easily have suffered a two-pronged outbreak – Listeria monocytogenes attacking a mainly elderly target audience, and Salmonella or E. coli menacing the rest of the population. The illness toll could have mounted into the thousands.

Truly, this cantaloupe outbreak could have been much worse.

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