Cantaloupe Crisis II: A Crisis Lingers

This is the second of the blogs about the 2011 food safety crisis/food recall.  The case illustrates how a crisis can extend over time.

September 29, 2011

It would seem quick to follow up on the cantaloupe post from yesterday but there are still some additional points to consider and information continues to roll in about the crisis.  It is odd for listeria to be found in a fruit, in fact it is the first ever listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupe.  Listeria is associated with processed meat, cheese, and milk.  Listeria can take up to two months to incubate.  That means more cases, and possible deaths, can keep appearing for weeks.  Each new case has the potential to extend the crisis and traditional and social media keep reporting on the events.

Jensen Farms remains at the center of the crisis as their cantaloupe are the cause of the outbreak.  However, there are gaps in the information about where the infected cantaloupe had been shipped.  Consider the following news item:

“Neither the government nor Jensen Farms has supplied a list of retailers who may have sold the fruit. Officials say consumers should ask retailers about the origins of their cantaloupe. If they still aren’t sure, they should get rid of it.

Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo. says it shipped cantaloupes to 25 states, though the FDA has said it may be more, and illnesses have been discovered in several states that were not on the shipping list. A spokeswoman for Jensen Farms said the company’s product is often sold and resold, so they do not always know where it went.

The recalled cantaloupes may be labeled ‘Colorado Grown,’ ‘’Distributed by Frontera Produce,’ ‘’’ or ‘Sweet Rocky Fords.’ Not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the FDA said. The company said it shipped out more than 300,000 cases of cantaloupes that contained five to 15 melons, meaning the recall involved 1.5 million to 4.5 million pieces of fruit.”

Officials are still working to track down the cause of the outbreak.  As one news story noted:

“Government investigators are continuing to search for the root cause of the outbreak, examining the possibility of animal or water contamination as well as the farm’s harvesting practices.”

Doubt will linger about the product’s safety until the root cause can be found.  Until a cause is found, no corrective actions can be taken that will reassure customers that the same event will not be repeated. 

Uncertainty is a part of crises but no identified cause coupled with no clear list of retailers generates great uncertainty for customers.  This uncertainty is captured the following comment from the CDC:

“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. “But if you can’t confirm it’s not Jensen Farms, then it’s best to throw it out.”

The uncertainty creates problems for all cantaloupe growers.  People become fearful of the product and avoid all cantaloupe.  Such was the situation in 1991 when Texas cantaloupe was associated with a salmonella outbreak.  California cantaloupe growers experienced a drop in sales too as customers just new “cantaloupe” was dangerous and was not differentiating between Texas and California cantaloupe.  In 1992, the Cantaloupe Advisory Board in California reduced its promotional spending believing a low profile would help people to forgive the health scare from 1991.  Other Colorado growers are concerned about the effects on their sales:

Local farmers are worried about cantaloupe sales after a Colorado farm says listeria has been found in some of its fruit. The new developments have prompted a recall of the fruit from Jensen Farms in melon-rich area of Rocky Ford.

Thursday’s recall most likely means a slow down in sales for local farmers, too. And, with melon season heating up for some on the Western Slope, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

“It can be devastating if it’s in some of your major items,” Farmer Robert Helmer said of a produce recall.

Another factor that helps crises to linger are lawsuits.  Lawsuits can bring media attention and do involve financial costs.  More families are initiating lawsuits against Jensen Farms.  Here is sample of the media coverage from one lawsuit

Herbert Stevens of Littleton, Colo., bought half of a Jensen Farms cantaloupe wrapped in plastic at a local grocery store on Aug. 10 and the 84-year-old developed tremors on Aug. 22.

“On the 24th, he got really weak and was in a sitting position and couldn’t get up,” his daughter, Jeni Exley, told

Stevens’ wife called 911 and he was taken to a hospital, where doctors discovered he had a fever of 102.7. By the end of the weekend, he had been diagnosed with listeriosis.

Antibiotics destroyed the listeria in Stevens’ body, but he remains weak and it’s unclear when — if ever — he’ll be able to leave the long-term care facility where he’s been living for the past week.

“He is making some progress but still relies on a walker to walk and assistance with activities of daily living,” Exley said.

Prior to contracting the bacteria, Stevens was able to walk without assistance and was in good health. He often took trips abroad with his family, most recently to Sweden.

Right now, however, “He sleeps for most of the day,” said Exley. “This has played havoc with his whole body.”


The stories do generate sympathy for the victims given the deadly nature and effects of listeria.

Finally, the Food and Drug Adminstration said the situation is further evidence of the need for the  Food Safety Modernization Act.


Questions to Consider

1.  What else could Jensen Farms do to improve on its crisis communication effort?

2.  How does this case illustrate the constraints that can limit an organization’s ability to respond effectively to a crisis?

3.  What can other producers do to limit the collateral damage from this crisis?

4.  Why does the CDC play such a pivotal role in these types of food borne illness crises?

5.  Jensen’s is considered a family farm.  Why might that be an asset in this crisis?

6.  Does Jensen Farms need to do more to address the lack of information about retailers?  Why or why not?

7.  Is this an appropriate time to push the Food Safety Modernazation Act?  Why or why not?


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