Daily Updates

September 28, 2013

FDA: Criminal case shows food safety is paramount

Criminal charges against two cantaloupe farmers over a deadly food-borne illness send an emphatic message to fruit and vegetable growers to crack down on safety, federal regulators said Friday.

Colorado farmers Eric and Ryan Jensen appeared in shackles in a Denver federal court this week and pleaded not guilty to charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has said conditions at Jensen Farms in southeast Colorado led to a 2011 listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. Officials said people in 28 states ate the contaminated fruit, and 147 required hospitalization.

The criminal prosecution “sends the message that absolute care must be taken to ensure that deadly pathogens do not enter our food supply chain,” the FDA said in a statement Friday.

Criminal charges are rare in food-borne illnesses, but the FDA under President Barack Obama has been more aggressive in pursuing farmers and food processors for alleged lapses, said Michael Doyle, director of University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety.

“I think the FDA is sending a strong message that the produce industry is going to have to raise the bar to ensure the safety of the, basically, ready-to-consume foods,” he said.

It’s the second such warning from the agency, Doyle said. In February, four former employees of a peanut company were charged in Georgia federal court with scheming to manufacture and ship tainted peanuts. A 2009 salmonella outbreak blamed on the peanuts killed nine people and sickened hundreds.

The four pleaded not guilty.

The listeria epidemic traced to Jensen Farms was the nation’s deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years.

The FDA concluded the melons likely were contaminated in Jensen Farms’ packing house. It said dirty water on a floor, and old, hard-to-clean equipment probably were to blame.

The Jensens’ trial is scheduled to start Dec. 1. The brothers could face up to six years in prison and $1.5 million in fines each if convicted.

Produce farmers don’t have a “true-kill” step to eliminate bacteria, the way dairies and other food producers do, Doyle said.

Pasteurization and proper storage can assure the safety of milk, he said. “We cannot say that with bag salads because we don’t have that true-kill step that will kill harmful bacteria,” Doyle said.

Higher safety standards are possible for produce, he said, but it will take time and money to develop them, and produce is a low-profit business.

Improved safety practices are economically feasible, said Michael Hirakata, president of the Rocky Ford Growers Association. Colorado cantaloupe farmers launched the association after the listeria epidemic to protect the reputation of Rocky Ford cantaloupes, sought-after for their distinct sweetness.

The Jensens farmed 90 miles from the Rocky Ford area, but they used the Rocky Ford name. Hirakata’s group registered Rocky Ford as a trademark, hired a full-time food safety manager and built a central packing operation where melons are washed and rinsed.

The group said it passed an unannounced FDA safety audit last month.

“This was the business we’re in and we wanted to keep doing it, so for us, it was feasible,” Hirakata said. “I know there’s several smaller farmers in our association (that have) done it. The consumer confidence is there, so it’s working.”

The Rocky Ford Growers Association sought advice from universities and from the state and federal agriculture departments and reviewed California’s cantaloupe safety rules to develop their standards.

Hirakata, a fourth-generation farmer, said the intensified focus on safety has changed farming.

At the end of the growing season, farmers used to say, “The freeze is coming. We’ve got to work hard and get done,” Hirakata said. “Now, it’s ‘We’ve got to look back at our operations and see where the risks are.”’

“It’s not my grandpa’s farm. It’s not even my dad’s farm anymore,” he said. “The face of produce is changing even as we speak.”

1
Text Only
Daily Updates
  • 10 Things to Know for Monday

    Your daily look at late-breaking news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Monday:

    April 20, 2014

  • In Other News, April 20

    April 20, 2014

  • Ukraine, Russia trade blame for shootout in east

    Within hours of an Easter morning shootout at a checkpoint manned by pro-Russia insurgents in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming militant Ukrainian nationalists and Russian state television stations aired pictures of supposed proof of their involvement in the attack that left at least three people dead.

    April 20, 2014

  • In West Bank, teen offenders face different fates

    The boys were both 15, with the crackly voices and awkward peach fuzz of adolescence. They lived just a few minutes away from one another in the West Bank. And both were accused of throwing stones at vehicles, one day after the other.

    April 20, 2014

  • Study: Fuels from corn waste not better than gas

    Biofuels made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term, a study shows, challenging the Obama administration’s conclusions that they are a much cleaner oil alternative and will help combat climate change.

    April 20, 2014

  • Fracking foes cringe as unions back drilling boom

    After early complaints that out-of-state firms got the most jobs, some local construction trade workers and union members in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia say they’re now benefiting in a big way from the Marcellus and Utica Shale oil and gas boom.

    April 20, 2014

  • In Colorado, a pot holiday tries to go mainstream

    Once the province of activists and stoners, the traditional pot holiday of April 20 has gone mainstream in the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana.

    April 20, 2014

  • ‘Capt. America’ tops box office for third week

    Captain America continues to vanquish box office foes, triumphing in ticket sales for the third consecutive week and dominating over megastar Johnny Depp’s new movie.

    April 20, 2014

  • Probe could complicate Rick Perry’s prospects

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry has spent a record 14 years in office vanquishing nearly all who dared confront him: political rivals, moms against mandatory vaccines for sixth graders, a coyote in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    April 20, 2014

  • NASA’s space station Robonaut finally getting legs

    Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs.

    April 19, 2014