Listeria Outbreak Cries for Changes, Not Hysteria

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published November 11 by Grand Junction Free Press.

The cantaloupe-caused outbreak of listeria created a tragedy for those infected by the bacteria and for their families. As of the end of last month, the death toll had risen to 28, the number of reported illnesses had climbed to 133, and one infected woman miscarried.

Though less important, the outbreak also created a tragedy for Colorado agriculture. Jensen Farms, responsible for spreading the bacteria, sits on the opposite side of the state. Yet Grand Junction has long been the home of fruit growers, and no doubt everyone associated with the industry can imagine the horror of getting caught up in something like that.

Colorado cantaloupes are among the best in the world. We have not seen good estimates on how much money the outbreak cost the growers of healthy cantaloupes, nor how much it may weaken the market for Colorado cantaloupes into the future.

While there is good reason to believe that Jensen Farms contributed to the outbreak through irresponsible practices (more on that below), it is also important to keep in mind the context of the illnesses. As of the 28th victim, the median age was 84. Prior to modern detection methods, such deaths often would have been chalked up to old age. In many cases, the listeria must be considered a contributing factor of death.

Bacteria are everywhere; the human body contains around ten times as many bacteria as human cells. We run into contact with potentially dangerous bacteria on a daily basis. Usually, our bodies fight them off.NPR ran an informative story last month pointing out that thousands of people probably ingested the listeria from the cantaloupes, and in most cases stomach acids killed these bacteria. Note too that some 128,000 Americans check into the hospital every year because of foodborne illness, and 3,000 die.

However, even though listeria mostly attacks people with already compromised immunities, obviously farmers should strive to take reasonable precautions to avoid the spread of dangerous bacteria. Jensen Farms seems not to have done that.

For example, “the farm had stopped adding a chlorine-based agent to its wash water,” reported the Denver Post‘s Michael Booth (who has done a generally good job covering the story and sorting through the relevant reports). Tap water gets chlorine treatment to kill pathogens, and it’s reasonable to think it could have helped prevent listeria growth. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration raised concerns about Jensen’s cooling systems, sorters, and more, Booth reported.

The question is what should be done to improve safety. Merely the financial risk of lawsuits may sufficiently motivate cantaloupe growers to double-check their safety procedures. Booth reported that Jensen “and its distributor, Frontera Produce of Texas, already face multiple wrongful-death lawsuits.”

What didn’t seem to work is a private audit; one of Booth’s headlines reads, “Private audit at Jensen Farms before listeria outbreak failed to flag woes.” Primus Labs gave Jensen Farms high scores just before the bad mellons shipped. We haven’t looked into the incentive structure of such deals or the details of that particular inspection enough to determine what went wrong; we do, however, wonder whether the inspection lab also opened itself up to tort liability.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar, formerly the area’s Congressional representative, wants to expand state oversight. (See Booth’s coverage of this story as well.) We appreciate Salazar’s relatively light touch here (not that he had much choice given state law): he suggests a possible “Colorado Proud” label that would require meeting certain guidelines.

We like the idea of a certification process, and we understand why other cantaloupe farmers support the idea. Responsible farmers want a good way to distinguish their products and separate themselves from their less-reputable competitors. However, we don’t see why the state needs to get involved in it. We think an independent agency, comparable to Underwriters Laboratories or Consumer Reports, can handle the job without bureaucratic assistance. No doubt grocers who sell the melons would look to such certification standards with great interest.

If we have one complaint about Booth’s reporting, it is that it seems to sometimes veer off into editorial waters by promoting more federal oversight. We don’t think the listeria outbreak warrants that, though we recognize the federal government’s Constitutional authority to “regulate” interstate trade. Frankly, the lawsuits alone will likely fix the problems, though we’d also like to see the improved certification.

Life is filled with risk. The only way to totally prevent foodborne illness is to stop eating. (We are, however, also intrigued by the potential to irradiate more food to kill pathogens.) If government regulators overreact, they threaten to raise food prices — something that creates its own health problems — and destroy certain businesses or even industries. Eating listeria-infected cantaloupe is dangerous, but so is throwing people out of work.

Remember not only those who recently got sick, but the multitudes who have enjoyed eating healthy Colorado cantaloupes, still among the best in the world.

[Update: Jennifer Brown and Michael Booth wrote a great article for the November 14 Denver Post discussing the wider problem of foodborne illness and offering some common-sense advice about it.]