February 27, 2024

After Listeria Outbreak Jensen Farms Owners Sue Auditor Primus

Whole and Sliced CantaloupeJust weeks before a deadly Listeria outbreak was linked to Jensen Farms, Primus Labs a third-party auditor, gave the fourth generation cantaloupe farm a 96 percent, superior rating on an audit. If it hadn’t done so, lives and livelihoods could have been spared from the outbreak that sickened 146 people and killed 35, claim the farm owners in a lawsuit filed against Primus on October 15 in District Court in Prowers County, Colo.

According to the complaint, Ryan and Eric Jensen say Primus “negligently gave Jensen [Farms] false information, on which Jensen reasonably relied in Jensen’s evaluation of the safety and quality of its facilities and procedures and cantaloupes.” A key point was a newly installed used processing system.

During a 2010 audit, Primus subcontractor BFS “expressed concerns that the hydrocooler used in processing was a “hot spot” for contamination because of its use of recirculating chlorinated water,” according to the complaint. The Jensen brothers replaced the system with a used potato washing system that washed the melons with city water and scrubbed them with brushes. The only chlorination used was in the city water.

During the 2011 Primus audit, Eric Jensen described the changes in the system  including the removal of the hydrocooler, according to the complaint. “The 2011 auditor did not question the removal of the hydrocooler, nor the new washer/dryer system.  He did not advise Jensen that their new processing system was below industry standards and practice, or deficient in any way.”

After the outbreak, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found a number of deficiencies during their inspection including: doors left open so animals could enter, handwashing stations with no hot water, equipment that was difficult to clean, packing tables made of wood which can harbor bacteria, no pre-cooling of melons and no chlorine in the water used to wash the melons. Failure to use an anti-microbial, such as chlorine, is a deviation from industry standards.

The role of third-party auditors, which the FDA uses to inspect growing and processing facilities, garnered scrutiny after the outbreak and prompted a Congressional investigation. The report, published by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, showed that third-party auditors often don’t conduct audits according to FDA guidelines.

Despite those problems, FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg has said third party auditors will continue “very, very important to our program” in the next budget cycle. The agency lacks the manpower to conduct all of the inspections without them.

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