The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning letter in relation to a Salmonella outbreak caused by cantaloupes produced on a farm in Indiana, which sickened 261 people and killed three. The disease affected people in 24 states, making it the largest multi-state outbreak in 2012, and caused 94 people to be admitted to hospital for treatment.
In its letter to Chamberlain Farms, based in Owensville, Ind., the FDA stated that its inspection found that Salmonella was widespread on the farm, as swabs taken from a range of growing locations showed multiple isolates of Salmonella, including those that matched genetically the outbreak strain.
Addressed to the company's president, Tim Chamberlain, the letter said that although melons are not expected to be grown in conditions that are entirely free of Salmonella, the inspection at the farm showed there was widespread contamination which is "not consistent with background contamination."
The FDA made a series of recommendations to the farm, as taken from the agency's Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards of Melons. The farm should take steps to minimize the presence of wildlife, insects and domestic animals on the fields, which can contaminate the production, the water and the soil on site. Chamberlain Farms should also implement a policy for staff training, which will enable workers to recognize and deal with evidence of wildlife pest infestations, as well as reduce the risks of surface contamination of the melons, which is extremely hard to eliminate once the fruit is contaminated.
Other recommendations include assessment of soil amendments where the melons touch soil directly, reviewing the type of irrigation at the farm and developing and maintaining written food safety plans for handling and storage, facility and vehicle cleaning and sanitation. In addition, cooling and cold storing of the melons should take place as soon as possible after harvest, if the produce is to be air cooled, the agency recommended.
The letter also noted that the inspection had identified a number of problems that could have contributed to the outbreak. Among them were debris including trash, mud and dirt beneath the conveyor belt in the cantaloupe packing house; standing water containing algae found on the floor of the packing house; bird excrement on the processing line; roof runoff water flowing into the brush washer and conveyor belt; carpets that could not be effectively cleaned or sanitized; and deposits of organic material accumulated on the cantaloupe conveyor. The FDA pointed out that some of the problem areas identified were addressed and corrected during the inspection but for others the farm will have to provide written evidence of long-term solutions.
Salmonella can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in children, elderly people and those with weakened immune systems. Healthy people infected with Salmonella can have symptoms like fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. In rare cases, infection with Salmonella can result in the organism getting into the bloodstream and causing more serious illnesses like arterial infections, endocarditis and arthritis, the FDA noted.