Fear the Fruit? Revisit Cantaloupe and Listeria 2011

This is the first in three blogs from 2011 about a serious food safety crisis.  The case shows how a recall by one small producer can have serious national repercussions for consumers and an entire industry.

September 28, 2011

Cantaloupe is an ancient fruit with references dating back to ancient Egypt in  2600BC.  People are very familiar with the orange fruit.  It is a staple of summer along with watermelon.  But any food can become deadly if it is tainted in some way.  In 2011, a deadly listeria outbreak was caused by cantaloupe from Colorado.  It was a multistate outbreak with victims appearing in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. By late September of 2011, 16 deaths were associated with the outbreak making it one of the most outbreaks in over a decade.

Listeria is not uncommon with over 1,600 cases in the U.S. each year and an average of three to four outbreaks.  Unfortunately, the death rate from listeria tends to be higher than for other food-borne bacteria.  Here is some additional information about listeria from the Cetners for Disease Control (CDC):

 

What is listeriosis?

Listeriosis, a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, is an important public health problem in the United States. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. However, rarely, persons without these risk factors can also be affected. The risk may be reduced by following a few simple recommendations.

What are the symptoms of listeriosis?

A person with listeriosis usually has fever and muscle aches, often preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Almost everyone who is diagnosed with listeriosis has “invasive” infection, in which the bacteria spread beyond the gastrointestinal tract. The symptoms vary with the infected person:

  • Pregnant women: Pregnant women typically experience only a mild, flu-like illness. However, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.
  • Persons other than pregnant women: Symptoms, in addition to fever and muscle aches, can include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions.

How great is the risk for listeriosis?

In the United States, an estimated 1,600 persons become seriously ill with listeriosis each year. Of these, 260 die. The following groups are at increased risk:

  • Pregnant women: Pregnant women are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis. About one in six (17%) cases of listeriosis occurs during pregnancy.
  • Newborns: Newborns suffer the most serious effects of infection in pregnancy.
  • Persons with weakened immune systems from transplants or certain diseases, therapies, or medications.
  • Persons with cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, liver or kidney disease.
  • Persons with AIDS: They are almost 300 times more likely to get listeriosis than people with normal immune systems.
  • Older adults

Healthy children and adults occasionally get infected with Listeria, but they rarely become seriously ill.

 

With any food-borne illness, the CDC works closely with state and local health officials to identify the cause of an outbreak once one has been identified.  The research involves interviewing victims to determine what and where they have eaten and to test food once possible sources have been identified.  In this case, the source was linked to Jensen Farms and its field in Granada, Colorado.  Consumers were warned not to eat Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms.  Clearly this was a case of product harm and a recall was issued.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) posted the official government statement on the recall:

Jensen Farms Recalls Cantaloupe Due to Possible Health Risk

 

Contact: Consumer 800-267-4561 recall@rfordcantaloupe.com

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – September 14, 2011 – Jensen Farms, of Holly, CO is voluntarily recalling their shipments of Rocky Ford whole cantaloupe because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria. The company is working with the State of Colorado and the FDA to inform consumers of this recall. L. monocytogenes is a bacterium that can contaminate foods and cause a mild non-invasive illness (called listerial gastroenteritis) or a severe, sometimes life-threatening, illness (called invasive listeriosis). Persons who have the greatest risk of experiencing listeriosis after consuming foods contaminated with L. monocytogenes are fetuses and neonates who are infected after the mother is exposed to L. monocytogenes during pregnancy, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

The whole cantaloupes in question were shipped between July 29th, 2011 and September 10th 2011, and distributed to the following states: IL, WY, TN, UT, TX, CO, MN, KS, NM, NC, MO, NE, OK, AZ, NJ, NY, PA. The whole cantaloupes have a green and white sticker that reads: Product of USA- Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford-Cantaloupe or a gray, yellow, and green sticker that reads: Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords. If the whole cantaloupe is unlabeled, please contact your retail store for sourcing information. Jensen Farms is requesting any consumer that many have one of these cantaloupes to please destroy the products.

The recall involves only whole cantaloupe shipped by Jensen Farms, and no other commodities are involved. Jensen Farms feels it is prudent to participate in the recall as the State of Colorado has stated (in their September 12th, 2011 press release) that people at a high risk for infection should not eat whole cantaloupe from the Rocky Ford growing region.

“Jensen Farms continues to stay committed to the highest levels of food safety and maintains many third party safety audits, as we have for many years. We continually look for ways to enhance our protocol,” said Ryan Jensen, partner at Jensen Farms. Jensen Farms is a 3rd generation family farm of the Holly, Colorado community.

Consumers with questions may contact Jensen Farms via email at recall@rfordcantaloupe.com or phone 1-800-267-4561 between the hours of 9am and 4pm MST.

 

###

The notice provided links to Flickr pictures of the recalled fruit.  Visuals make it easier for to identify if they have the recalled product.

The product harm created a crisis for Jensen Farms.  Here is their announcement of the recall from their web site:

 

Company Statement

STATEMENT REGARDING 9/16/11 CANTALOUPE TEST RESULTS FROM COLORADO DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENT “We are deeply saddened to learn that cantaloupes grown on our farm have been linked to the current Listeria outbreak. Our hearts go out to those individuals and their families who have been affected by this terrible situation. “We have been cooperating fully with public health officials who are trying to determine the source of the outbreak, and we will continue to do everything we can to assist them in their efforts. We hope that the investigation into the entire supply chain from farm to retail identifies the source of the contamination so that appropriate steps can be taken to prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again.”

Eric and Ryan Jensen Jensen Farms

Press Release

Jensen Farms Recalls Cantaloupe Due to Possible Health Risk FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE September 14th, 2011-Jensen Farms, of Holly, CO is voluntarily recalling their shipments of Rocky Ford whole cantaloupe because they have the potential to be contaminated with Listeria. The company is working with the State of Colorado and the FDA to inform consumers of this recall. L. monocytogenes is a bacterium that can contaminate foods and cause a mild non-invasive illness (called listerial gastroenteritis) or a severe, sometimes life-threatening, illness (called invasive listeriosis). Persons who have the greatest risk of experiencing listeriosis after consuming foods contaminated with L. monocytogenes are fetuses and neonates who are infected after the mother is exposed to L. monocytogenes during pregnancy, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems. The whole cantaloupes in question were shipped between July 29th, 2011 and September 10th 2011, and distributed to the following states: IL, WY, TN, UT, TX, CO, MN, KS, NM, NC, MO, NE, OK, AZ, NJ, NY, PA. The whole cantaloupes have a green and white sticker that reads: Product of USA- Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford- Cantaloupe or a gray, yellow, and green sticker that reads: Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords. If the whole cantaloupe is unlabeled, please contact your retail store for sourcing information. Jensen Farms is requesting any consumer that may have one of these cantaloupes to please destroy the products. The recall involves only whole cantaloupe shipped by Jensen Farms, and no other commodities are involved. Jensen Farms feels it is prudent to participate in the recall as the State of Colorado has stated (in their September 12th, 2011 press release) that people at a high risk for infection should not eat whole cantaloupe from the Rocky Ford growing region. “Jensen Farms continues to stay committed to the highest levels of food safety and maintains many third party safety audits, as we have for many years. We continually look for ways to enhance our protocol,” said Ryan Jensen, partner at Jensen Farms. Jensen Farms is a 3rd generation family farm of the Holly, Colorado community. Consumers with questions may contact Jensen Farms via email at recall@rfordcantaloupe.com or phone 1-800-267-4561 between the hours of 9am and 4pm MST.

The recall information could be found using a link placed in the bottom right corner of the Jensen Farms home page.  The information was clearly visible in the “Farm Blog” tab and easy to access.  Jensen Farms has a Facebook page with a little over 200 fans/likes.  They posted a statement there are well and their supports rallied around the company.  Below is the Facebook post and some responses:

Many Thanks to those with continued support of Jensen Farms

We want to reach out an thank everyone for supporting us through this terrible time in the history of our beloved farm. Your messages and wall posts are helping us stay motivated, and optimistic about our future. Thank you…

Responses:

We are very sorry to hear about your time of trial our family will lift up you, your family and the others affected by this trial. God Bless and keep trusting.

I feel the store may have been the issue..I hope and pray your farm is clean so you can continue to share good food with us all….But Please do us all a favor…edcuate everyone as you learn…..the truth:) We are all with you and with the families that are ill…we are just a small farm , we grow organics for ourself but need farms like you to supply what we dont grow for ourself….Our trust is in the truth….best wishes to your family and the families of the ill to get to the bottom of this , to learn and grow

Love you guys and hope everything gets cleared up soon!!!

Praying for you and your family. I will continue to purchase our produce direct from the Arkansas Valley. Hope the consumers will learn how important it is to wash their produce no matter what. Don’t ever loose the faith, God Bless.

I am praying for your family/farm, and will continue to buy your produce!

I cant even imagine but you have mine and my families support..click on me if you need any help, I’ll try and do what ever I can…Im really ticked that this happened weather it was planted or just a freak of nature. Im even more ticked that someone is wanting to be greedy and gain from this mess..But you do have my support, just ask…thats what people do they come together and help

It really could have happened to anyone, so my best hope is that people understand this and don’t let it stop them from buying your produce in the future. Best of luck!

I’m so sorry this has happened and you will always have my support!

Praying for you guys! This is just heart breaking and if there is anything we can do to help just let us know! I love cantaloupe, it’s my favorite. Everyone needs to make sure they wash their produce before it is consumed.

 

With people becoming ill and dying, a lawsuit was quick to follow the crisis.   Charles Palmer, 71 years-old, was hospitalized for two weeks from the listeria in the cantaloupe he ate.  Here are the Jensen Farm comments in the story about the lawsuit:

“We’re deeply saddened that there’s a possibility that our family’s cantaloupe could have gotten somebody sick,” Jensen Farms owner Eric Jensen told 7NEWS Thursday. “Our first priority is the public’s health and safety.”  Jensen’s fourth-generation family farm in Holly, normally busy with harvest now, was ghostly quiet after the suspected listeria contamination forced Jensen to shut down Monday and destroy his cantaloupe crops.

 

The grower launched a voluntary nationwide recall on Wednesday.

Jensen said the farm had never faced a public health crisis and he’d never heard of listeria contaminating cantaloupe.  “We’re still in shock,” Jensen said, choking with emotion. “We’re completely focused on our recall efforts right now.”  Jensen said he had no clue about the source of the contamination, adding that it could still be found “on the retail end.”  While a terrible setback, Jensen said that the listeria outbreak wouldn’t claim his farm.

“We’ll definitely be back,” Jensen vowed.

 

Crises with victims typically are extended in time and cost by lawsuits.  Victims sue the organization causing longer attention from the media and increased costs from the litigation and any settlements resulting from the litigation.

Questions to Consider

  1. How would you rate the crisis response from Jensen Farms and what factors influenced that rating?
  2. How does the government’s involved in a crisis response help or hurt the organization trying to management the crisis?
  3. How did the Jensen Farm recall statement differ from the FDA’s and why would there be a difference?
  4. Was it a good or bad idea for Jensen Farms to post a message of Facebook?  What is the reasoning behind your conclusion?
  5. In general, how might the supportive statements on Facebook help Jensen Farms through this crisis?
  6. Is there any way Jensen Farms might effectively incorporate the supportive Facebook comments into their later crisis response strategies?
  7. What advice would you give to Jensen Farms about recovering from the crisis at this point?
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