In my opinion, Jensen Farms is ultimately the responsible party but is not a produce industry pariah.
There are many parties that bear responsibility for the tragedy imposed upon the victims, and their families, after eating listeria-contaminated cantaloupe.
The ripple effects wash over the Colorado cantaloupe industry, the cantaloupe industry at large, and the melon and produce industry as a whole.
From the information available at this time, it appears clear that an exceptional combination of factors converged with the result of widespread facility and product contamination.
I firmly believe, based on my experience and exposure to produce production and postharvest handling nationally and internationally, that a combination of failed or absent preventive hurdles will ultimately emerge as the key factors at this one operation.
However, I am equally certain that potential or likely predecessors exist more broadly than is being truthfully and self-critically appraised.
I am concerned that members of the broad produce industry are too readily dismissing this as the negligence of “one bad actor” rather than taking the information, as it comes into the light, as a critical time for reassessment of vulnerabilities.
Though the investigation is ongoing, this is the responsible time to become better informed about the systemic nature of the links that exist between pathogens, produce and practices.
In all operations there exists the potential for shifting levels of risk inadvertently, by indifference or by ignorance, from routine and safe to beyond the boundaries of our control.
When it comes to food safety, I am a firm believer in the saying and in applying “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
I know this applies to me, and I try very hard to guard against complacency in challenging my deficiencies in subject areas beyond my expertise or my version of common sense.
Recently, I was driving around a rural farming area between extension meetings, as I often do, just to see what was going on locally.
A field had been staged for harvest and what struck me was the close proximity to a potential source of airborne contamination.
Not the field itself, but the equipment and packing materials that would subsequently be brought over to the scheduled harvest blocks.
By chance, that potential became reality as a plume was discharged and drifted across the area. I was the only one around to observe this event and I could not know that anyone responsible for the harvest operations would observe or react to this hazard.
Clearly, the person who dropped the materials and equipment at this spot wasn’t in tune with the risk potential because it was that obvious.
It was easy to determine who to contact and the situation was corrected immediately and communication of the concern was shared with all involved.
The likelihood for contamination was more certain than in most situations where a specific practice or potential for exposure to pathogens may be observed, but one can only speculate as to whether a random illness or identifiable outbreak would ever result.
Even in this situation, it is most likely that other food safety controls would have had to fail or other handling practices or fresh processing would have to promote growth of any live pathogens.
The fear is that no one down the supply chain would have a clue of this exposure if the people on site didn’t see a problem.
Would a documents audit or even an on-site harvest-ops audit get positive marks for having packing material off the ground and equipment surfaces cleaned between fields?
I have no doubt that full scores would be awarded.
Would the auditor recognize the concern I felt existed in the absence of being at the site but not present during an actual exposure event?
I believe that most of the time the answer would be yes.
However, the long skepticism that has limited confidence within and outside the industry for the uniformity of skills applied to produce audits has not been diminished by a series of apparent deficiencies connected to several outbreaks and recalls.
I am not suggesting that the produce industry as a whole is riddled with failures in preventive food safety management.
However, I have used a cartoon of a man looking in a mirror at a much more handsome version of himself in many GAPs workshops and industry trainings over the past several years to promote the need for honest self-appraisals.
Sometimes it isn’t easy to look in the mirror and accurately assess the reflection. Self-awareness also doesn’t always work, especially if one isn’t trained to recognize the problem, which may be subtle or complex.
Perhaps worse, it does no good to have someone entrusted to point out the flaws merely give you a sense of false perfection or false security by a poorly constructed judging system and limited or absent secondary review of reports.
The whole supply chain should be considering what actions each link should take to prevent a reoccurrence of recent events. I sincerely hope that at least these two broad actions among the supply side will emerge from the immediate aftermath of this tragedy.
- All operations should take a team approach to re-analyzing hazards and practice-specific risks with individuals of diverse background, including experienced individuals from cross-operational units and external experts.
- Though applicable to all scales, medium- and small-scale suppliers especially should become informed and ideally participate in the evolving educational programs being developed by the Produce Safety Alliance.
As the training programs being designed in anticipation and in advance of the pending Food and Drug Administration Produce Safety Rule become a reality, it is critical that growers and handlers commit to attend, extract and even challenge the practicality of information and guidance that is intended to assist in skill-building toward effective preventive program design and self-audits.
Trevor Suslow is an extension research specialist in preharvest to postharvest produce safety at the University of California-Davis. These opinions represent the author’s and not necessarily those of UC-Davis.
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