Listeria outbreak raises question about road from farm to fork

Sunday, October 2, 2011 | 4:10 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — The recent listeria outbreak from cantaloupe shows that large-scale occurrences of serious illnesses linked to tainted food have grown more common over the years, partly because much of what we eat takes a long and winding road from farm to fork.

A cantaloupe grown on a Colorado field may make four or five stops before it reaches the dinner table. There's the packing house where it is cleaned and packaged, then the distributor who contracts with retailers to sell the melons in large quantities. A processor may cut or bag the fruit. The retail distribution center is where the melons are sent out to various stores. Finally it's stacked on display at a grocery store.

Imported fruits and vegetables, which make up almost two-thirds of the produce consumed in the United States, have an even longer journey.

"Increasingly with agribusiness you have limited producers of any given food, so a breakdown in a facility or plant or in a large field crop operation exposes thousands because of the way the food is distributed," says Dr. Brian Currie, an infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

The Colorado cantaloupe crop that's linked to 84 illnesses and as many as 17 deaths in 19 states has traveled so far and wide that producer Jensen Farms doesn't even know exactly where their fruit ended up.

The company said last week that it can't provide a list of retailers that sold the tainted fruit because the melons were sold and resold. It named the 28 states where the fruit was shipped, but people in other states have reported getting sick. There have been three illnesses linked to the outbreak in Missouri, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A Kansas-based processor that purchased cantaloupes from Jensen, Carol's Cuts, didn't provide a notice to its customers that it had sold the farm's cantaloupes until nine days after the original recall.

"The food chain is very complex," says Sherri McGarry, a senior adviser in the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Foods. "There are many steps, and the more steps there are the harder it can be to link up each step to identify what the common source" of an outbreak is.

Fewer and larger farms and companies dominate food production in the country. That has driven some consumers to seek out farmers markets and locally grown produce. Supermarkets now highlight food grown nearby, while farmers markets have soared in popularity.

But many in the produce industry have come together to try and improve the ability to quickly trace food from field to plate.

This is good business. Large recalls, such as spinach in 2006, peanuts in 2009 and eggs in 2010, tend to depress sales for an entire product industry, even if only one company or grower was responsible for the outbreak.

Recent outbreaks of salmonella in peanuts and eggs, which are ingredients in thousands of foods, have been more widespread and sickened more people than have the tainted cantaloupe.

"There has been a laser focus on improving traceability so any recall can identify the affected product immediately and not have an effect on the rest of the entire category," says Ray Gilmer of United Fresh Produce Association, which represents the country's largest growers.

Gilmer said that larger food companies have no choice but to take food safety very seriously.

"The stakes for a large company to have a food safety incident are huge," he said. "It could destroy their company."

Listeria, a bacteria found in soil and water, often turns up in processed meats because it can contaminate a processing facility and stay there for a long period of time. It's also common in unpasteurized cheeses and unpasteurized milk, though less so in produce such as cantaloupe.

The disease can cause fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms and even death. One in five people who have listeria can die.

A food safety law passed by Congress last year gives the FDA new power to improve tracing food through the system. Food safety advocates say the law will help make the food network safer by focusing on making every step in the chain safer and making it easier to find the source of outbreaks.

For the first time, larger farms are required to submit plans detailing how they are keeping their produce safe.

Erik Olson, director of food and consumer safety programs for the Pew Health Group, says it is critical that those improvements are made to prevent more, larger outbreaks as the system grows more complex.

"Clearly the food industry has just changed enormously in the last several decades," Olson said. "It would be virtually impossible to sit down and eat a meal and eat food that hasn't come from all over the world."

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Michael Williams October 2, 2011 | 6:53 p.m.

"That has driven some consumers to seek out farmers markets and locally grown produce. Supermarkets now highlight food grown nearby, while farmers markets have soared in popularity."

I'm fine with this, but folks need to realize their "protection" doesn't really go up all that much. It only takes one local knucklehead to decide the best "natural" way to fertilize is to mix cow manure with water, then spray.

Purchasing locally DOES improve traceability in the event of problems. I'd like to know how small, local growers protect themselves from liability. Is there product liability for this, what's the cost, and is it required?

I'd also like to know just how "organic" our "organic producers" are nowadays. Is testing done on their products? I've personally analyzed "organic" produce (10-15 years ago, purchased locally) and can attest that quite often organic was not really organic. In some cases, pesticides not even registered for use on that crop were found. That's a federal felony!

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 3, 2011 | 8:42 a.m.

Michael Williams wrote:

"Is there product liability for this, what's the cost, and is it required?"

Yes - several companies write it, and it's usually a few hundred dollars a year for small vendors (less than $50-100,000/year total sales).

The main advantage of a smaller producer is if contamination does occur, it affects fewer people. The down side is the small producers cost more.

I suspect some organic foods are simply relabeled conventional produce. Consumer Reports did a study a while back in which they found pesticide residues on about 70% of conventional produce abd about 25% of organic. It's possible some of it gets repackaged so they can sell it for more.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 3, 2011 | 1:58 p.m.


Thanx for info on the product liability insurance.

I'm unsure about your statement "it affects fewer people". Take this latest outbreak of Listeria, for example. So far, 84 illnesses. Now, that's the known outbreak from many thousands (millions?) of cantaloupes. Those cantaloupes have been out of the field for many days, perhaps weeks, have been washed probably many times, and I don't know how Listeria responds to such a duration of time/treatment. Or, perhaps only a few of the cantaloupes were affected and, of those, a high percentage caused illness. I don't know. But, in a local setting with smaller plots and numbers of produce, my guess is that most if not all would be tainted which would cause a higher percentage of illness. Just speculating......

I can't attest to the quality of current organic food...only that from 10-15 years ago. During that time interval, my lab needed specific types of produce known to NOT contain certain pesticides. The best place to get some was from local "organic" growers/stores. (These crops were needed for quality control purposes on our other lab work). When we analyzed the "organic" crops, lo-and-behold we found pesticides. Some of those pesticides were labeled for use on the crops but some were not. Highly illegal go-directly-to-federal-jail stuff.

That was then and this is now. Nonetheless, I suspect your statement that conventional produce is sometimes (often?) relabeled as "organic" is a true one in current markets. Organic folks resist requirements for testing vigorously...expensive...which it is.

However, for what reasons should a local small grower be believed, but not a large non-local grower? Is Joe Doaks down the street more believable than John Doaks from SE Colorado? If so, why? I think that when folks purchase "local" there is a perception of "control" on the part of the purchaser. But, it's only a perception that may have little basis in fact.

After all, when a grower's livelihood is going down the tubes with an insect, fungal, or grass makes folks do strange and awful things as we all know. A little bit of Pounce, Chlorthalanil, or Poast can be the difference between paying your mortgage or not paying your mortgage. In the absence of testing....who's to know??????

Oh well. I was in the ag pesticide safety-testing business for 22 years, I know what is in the products we consume, I know how much is there, and I understand toxicity. I worry a WHOLE lot more whether my hamburger and eggs are well-cooked. I don't worry about organic versus inorganic, and I don't worry about pesticides, either.

PS. Disclosure: I garden, and I use pesticides.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle October 3, 2011 | 4:07 p.m.

Would either of you care to comment on the differences between "organic" and "sustainable" gardening / farming / agriculture?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams October 3, 2011 | 6:22 p.m.

Derrick: The word "organic" has been corrupted from its original meanings, to wit: (1) Anything containing carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (chemistry definition) or (2) anything living (biological definition).

Last I checked, the legal definition of "organic" means any food NOT containing pesticides, modifications to genetics other than selective breedings, fertilizers unless derived from other living organisms (e.g., bat and cattle manure, but not synthetic like 12-12-12), and a few other things I can't think of right now.

"Sustainable" gardening/farming-and-the-like refer to practices closely allied with "organic" farming. The practices are based upon the idea "There is only so much soil, so try not to screw it up." The practice uses things like rotational cropping, recycling, no-till, . The idea is to not bring anything into the field (i.e., synthetics)....i.e., keep things natural, and things will all work out.

I have little problems with sustainable agriculture so long as folks are willing to pay more...lots more...for their food. If you want free-range chickens (which I like...a lot!), then be willing to pay double or even triple (if ALL chickens were grown that way). Same thing cows, veggies, corn, soy, etc. As for crop rotation, can this nation/world feed itself with 1/3rd to 1/2 of the arable land rotated into legumes or grass every other (or third) year?

I remain unconvinced sustainable agriculture OR organic can provide sufficient food to this world, even with higher prices. Why? The lessons of the past give us the answer....bugs and undesired plants will take their portion. A large portion.

Nature finds a way to feed itself. Growing human food will always be a fist fight against nature.

PS: Are there successful organic farms in operation right now? You bet. It's easier to grow organic when millions of acres surrounding your farm are NOT organic, killing many of the noxious organisms before they ever get to your farm.

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