cantaloupe listeria new mexico.jpgThe law firm of Marler Clark filed a lawsuit last week on behalf of a New Mexico resident, Florence Wilcox, who was one of five victims in the state to die after eating listeria-contaminated cantaloupe.  The listeria outbreak was traced to Rocky Ford cantaloupe produced by Jensen Farms, of Holly, Colorado.

In today’s Albuquerque Journal, Olivier Uyttebrouck reports:

Jensen Farms is one of three firms named in the lawsuit. Also named are two food-safety firms hired to audit Jensen Farms in July.

The owner of the Texas firm that performed the July 25 audit at Jensen Farms said auditors only were required to visually inspect the packing plant and determine that the grower “is minimizing the possibility of contamination” to the greatest extent possible.

The audit did not involve laboratory testing for the presence of bacterial organisms, said Jerry Walzel, president and owner of Bio Food Safety Inc. of Rio Hondo, Texas.

“The audit is performed on what you can see,” Walzel said. “Trust me, there is no human being that can see microbial contamination.”

Bio Food Safety completed the audit under contract with a California firm, Primus Group Inc., which is also named in the lawsuit. The auditor’s job was to complete a food safety audit form, provided by Primus, that complies with federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines, Walzel said.

The FDA could have prevented the outbreak by requiring producers to sanitize cantaloupe before shipping, Walzel said.

“It’s a matter of setting up a chlorine wash and washing them,” said Walzel, who said most large producers use such a sanitizing system for cantaloupe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least 139 people in 28 states have been identified as part of the Listeria outbreak traced to Rocky Ford cantaloupes grown by Jensen Farms. 29 people have died and one woman has miscarried as a result of their Listeria illnesses.

Listeriosis is a serious infection caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium called Listeria monocytogenes. Symptoms may include muscle ache, fever, diarrhea, and nausea. In some cases the infection may spread to the nervous system which, in severe cases, may cause brain infection and/or meningitis. Listeria is especially dangerous in immune-deficient individuals such as young children and the elderly. Pregnant women who contract Listeria are at risk for miscarriage or still birth.