June 15, 2024

Salmonella Outbreak Wasn’t Our Fault Says Chamberlain Farms

A cantaloupe Salmonella outbreak that last summer caused 261 illnesses in 24 states and killed three people was linked months ago by federal authorities to Chamberlain Farms of Owensville, Ind. Now, the farm’s owners are saying: it’s not our fault.

Salmonella outbreakEarlier this week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made public a warning letter that it sent to Chamberlain Farms, outlining the problems discovered during a post-outbreak inspection of the farm, making recommendations to address the problems and giving a deadline for response. The agency sends warning letters in situations where problems discovered don’t have quick fixes. The warning letter to Chamberlain Farms re-stated previously published information: that environmental swabs taken from various locations in melon fields yielded multiple isolates of Salmonella, including those that genetically matched the outbreak strain. The agency said its findings suggested that the source of contamination “is wide-spread and not consistent with background contamination.”

The letter reiterated other problems discovered at the farm during a post-outbreak inspection that may have contributed to Salmonella growth. Those problems included: accumulated organic matter on multiple locations of the cantaloupe conveyer; debris, trash, wood, food pieces, standing water, mud, and dirt beneath the conveyer belt in the cantaloupe packinghouse; standing water, that appeared to contain algae, on the floor of the packinghouse; bird excrement in the rafters above food contact surfaces and on the processing line itself; runoff water from the roof flowing into brush washer, use of materials such as carpet that could not be effectively cleaned or sanitized; and uncapped well heads.

The agency noted in the letter that some of the problems were corrected during the inspection, but that the farm must provide documentation of its planned  long-term solutions. Yesterday, an attorney representing the farm released a statement to local media outlets saying that tests performed by an independent microbiologist reveal that land adjacent to the melon fields was also contaminated with the outbreak strain and that that land is the likely source of the Salmonella outbreak, not Chamberlain Farms. The attorney also said that Chamberlain Farms would not be growing cantaloupe this year and that the melon packing equipment has been dismantled and disposed.

It’s not unusual for growers or companies linked to outbreaks through epidemiological evidence to say “it wasn’t me.” In 2011, a cantaloupe Listeria outbreak, the worst food poisoning outbreak in a century, sickened 146 people and killed more than 30 of them.  That outbreak was linked to Jensen Farms in Holly,  Colo. According to FDA reports, conditions on the farm were similar to those found at Chamberlain.

Months after the outbreak, as Salmonella attorneys filed lawsuits on behalf of outbreak victims,  Eric Jensen, a co-owner of the farm told the Dallas Morning News that the outbreak was “something Mother Nature did.”  It wasn’t conditions on the farm, he said. “We didn’t have anything to do with it.”


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