The year 2011 was a bad one for cantaloupe. First, in March, was the Salmonella Panama outbreak linked to melons imported from Guatemala. The FDA put a ban on the product from Del Monte’s offshore operations until it was proven that their farms followed Good Agricultural Practices and there were no human pathogens found on cantaloupes grown there.
Next came the more serious Jensen Farms Listeria outbreak in August. Thirty three people died as a result of the contamination spread from the Colorado farm operations. This past fall the owners of that farm in Holly Colorado, Eric and Ryan Jensen, were charged with six counts of federal criminal misdemeanor. The charges were brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation. This past week the brothers were sentenced in federal court in Denver.
I understand that the message being sent is that customers demand safe food. We can all agree that is a worthy goal to attain. I doubt, however, that anyone woke up one morning and said “let’s contaminate some melons”, either in Guatemala or in Colorado. Having federal criminal charges brought seems excessive. In the Jensen case they were trying to do things correctly, including submitting their operation to a third party food safety audit.
If we decide to prosecute growers for doing their job, I wonder just how many will quit. This country was built on the hard work of the family farmer. We are currently third in the world according to the United Nations.
What will happen to our fresh fruit and vegetable output if growers are afraid of being prosecuted? This is on the heels of our industry reaching out to engage children in eating habit formulation that includes copious amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables. There are thousands of good people working tirelessly to make healthy eating a priority.
Collaboration and education, not prosecution and imprisonment, will drive the entire process forward faster and with greater impact. Simple education like this from the CDC will take us further in prevention of tragic loss
Consumers and food preparers should wash their hands before and after handling any melon. Wash the surface of melons such as cantaloupes, and dry them with a clean cloth or paper towel before cutting. Promptly refrigerate cut cantaloupe.
Food borne illness has been with us since the dawn of time. My mother often referred to “intestinal distress”. Now that we have rapid detection and instantaneous reporting, we can categorize and identify outbreak clusters much faster than mom’s generation could. Tracing a problem to its source should aid in control and prevention rather than be grounds for prosecution.