Guest Blog: Safe Employees = Safe Food

The following Guest Blog first appeared on Marler Blog, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author, Bill Marler.

Safe Employees = Safe Food

When AP reported this week that an owner of Jensen Farms was being fined by the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to provide safe migrant worker housing, I must admit even I was a bit shocked. Could it be that an owner of a business that allowed the deadly fecal bacteria Listeria to coat its product would also treat its employees like crap too?

Well, apparently yes. It seems that Eric Jensen, the Colorado Cantaloupe grower that caused an outbreak that killed 30 (by my count 32) – sickening a total of 146 – people, rented migrant workers unsanitary, overcrowded rooms at a motel he owns. Inspectors said many rooms lacked beds, laundry facilities and smoke detectors. Jensen now faces a whopping $4,250 in civil penalties. As the Department’s Denver director said:

“Profiting at the expense of vulnerable workers is not just inhumane, it’s illegal.”

I would add immoral and really, really stupid – especially when it comes to producing safe food.

Less we forget, the FDA and the staff of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee found a number of safety lapses at Jensen Farms that likely led to the outbreak:

  • Condensation from cooling systems draining directly onto the floor,
  • Poor drainage resulting in water pooling around the food processing equipment,
  • Inappropriate food processing equipment which was difficult to clean (i.e., Listeria found on the felt roller brushes),
  • No antimicrobial solution, such as chlorine, in the water used to wash the cantaloupes,
  • No equipment to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before they were placed into 
cold storage, and
  • FDA officials were highly critical of the processing methods used at Jensen Farms. According to these FDA officials, the probable causes of the melon contamination at Jensen Farms included “serious design flaws” in the processing technique used at Jensen Farms, “poor sanitary design of the facility itself,” and “lack of awareness of food safety standards by Jensen Farms.” In particular, FDA emphasized to Committee staff that the processing equipment and the decision not to chlorinate the water used to wash the cantaloupes were two probable causes of the contamination.

Hmm, does this sound familiar to you? Remember the sickening of 1939 people with Salmonella and the recall of 500,000,000 eggs in 2010 linked to Iowa’s Wright County Egg? Who could forget the FDA inspection report highlights of some of its findings at Wright County:

  • Chicken manure located in the manure pits below the egg laying operations was observed to be approximately 4 feet high to 8 feet high at the following locations: Layer 1 – House 1; Layer 3 – Houses 2, 7, 17, and 18. The outside access doors to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals,
  • Un-baited, unsealed holes appearing to be rodent burrows located along the second floor baseboards were observed inside Layer 1 – Houses 1-9 and 11-13; Layer 2 – Houses 7 and 11; Layer 3 – Houses 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6; Layer 4 – House 3,
  • Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses at the following locations: Layer 1 – Houses 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, and 14; and Layer 3 – Houses 1, 8, 13, and 17,
  • Standing water approximately 3 inches deep was observed at the southeast corner of the manure pit located inside Layer 1 – House 13,
  • Un-caged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operations in contact with the egg laying birds at Layer 3 – Houses 9 and 16. The un-caged birds were using the manure, which was approximately 8 feet high, to access the egg laying area,
  • Layer 3 – House 11, the house entrance door to access both House 11 and 12 was blocked with excessive amounts of manure in the manure pits,
  • There were between 2 to 5 live mice observed inside the egg laying Houses 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, and 14, and
  • Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed at the following locations inside the egg laying houses: Layer 1 – Houses 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, and 12; Layer 2 – Houses 7 and 11; Layer 3 – Houses 3, 4, 4, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16, 17, and 18. The live flies were on and around egg belts, feed, shell eggs and walkways in the different sections of each egg laying area. In addition, live and dead maggots too numerous to count were observed on the manure pit floor located in Layer 2 – House 7.

And, guess what else – the owner of Wright County, Jack DeCoster, cared little for his employees too. A few examples:

  • In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were:

“As dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.”

  • In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.

And, who can forget Stewart Parnell and the Peanut Corporation of America Salmonella outbreak of 2009 that sickened 714 persons in 46 states – killing nine. The FDA reported that the company shipped tainted products under three conditions: (1) without retesting, (2) before the re-test results came back from an outside company, and (3) after a second test showed no bacterial contamination.

As one PCA employee was quoted as saying:

“I never ate the peanut butter, and I wouldn’t allow my kids to eat it.”

My strong suspicion is that Jensen Farm workers were not eating Jensen Farm cantaloupes as they sat in their overcrowded hotel rooms. And, I would be willing to bet that Wright County employees were not taking a dozen eggs home to the family from work.

Perhaps there is a lesson here? Perhaps how you treat your employees, and how the employee feels about the product, says volumes about the quality and safety of the product? If the employees will not eat the product, perhaps that products should simply not be sold.

About the author: Bill Marler is a personal injury and products liability attorney, and an internationally known food safety advocate. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, when he represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Bill is a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law, and the Law School’s “Lawyer in Residence.”


Cantaloupe Outbreak Could Have Been Worse

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.

Packing House Practices and Design Contributed To Cantaloupe Contamination

October 19, 2011.- FDA reported this morning that 13 out of 39 environmental samples taken during its initial outbreak “regulatory” investigation at Jensen Farms’ packing house were positive for Listeria monocytogenes. Five out of 10 cantaloupe samples tested by FDA also were positive for outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes. City water used to wash the cantaloupes was clean.

Among the 18 positive samples, FDA labs found three of the four different strains of Listeria monocytogenes that have been recovered from outbreak patients, in addition to another strain that has not been recovered from any patients.

FDA and state investigators conducted a “root cause” investigation of Jensen’s operations on September 22-23rd – after the company disassembled and cleaned their equipment and decontaminated the entire packing house. Environmental samples taken during the September 22-23rd investigation were all negative for Listeria monocytogenes, as were samples of cantaloupe taken in the growing fields.

The root cause investigation identified several factors that, according to FDA, “…likely contributed to the introduction, spread and growth of Listeria monocytogenes…”

  • There could have been low level sporadic Listeria monocytogenes in the field where the cantaloupe were grown, which could have been introduced into the packing facility
  • A truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked adjacent to the packing facility and could have introduced contamination into the facility
  • The packing facility’s design allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways;
  • The packing facility floor was constructed in a manner that made it difficult to clean
  • The packing equipment was not easily cleaned and sanitized; washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe packing was previously used for postharvest handling of another raw agricultural commodity.
  • There was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage. As the cantaloupes cooled there may have been condensation that promoted the growth of Listeria monocytogenes.

During a morning media teleconference, FDA and Colorado officials were at pains to assure the public that the Jensen Farms packing house was an unusual situation. “There is no reason to believe,” said Sherri McGarry of FDA, “that these practices were representative of the industry.”

FDA has issued a Warning Letter to Jensen Farms, citing “…widespread contamination throughout …” and “…poor sanitary practices in the facility.” The agency has not yet released a copy of Form 483 inspection report, usually handed to the company at the close of an inspection where significant violations have been found.

Jensen Farms has fifteen working days to respond to the Warning Letter with specific steps it has taken to correct the violations.

Yesterday, CDC issued its latest Investigation Update, reporting that this outbreak has claimed 25 lives, caused one miscarriage, and sickened 123 people in 26 states. It will be at least another two weeks, according to CDC, before the agency feels comfortable declaring the outbreak to be at an end.

FDA believes that all of the Jensen Farms cantaloupes have been removed from the marketplace. Nevertheless, juice from cut cantaloupes could have contaminated refrigerator and food preparation surfaces. FDA recommends that consumers who may have purchased the recalled cantaloupes should clean and disinfect their refrigerators and work areas as follows:

  1. Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards and countertops;
  2. Sanitize the surfaces with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water;
  3. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used; and
  4. Wash hands with warm water and soap following the cleaning and sanitizing procedure.