Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Diana DeGette and Henry Waxman request listeria outbreak investigation

U.S. Representative Diana DeGette didn't just fall off the turnip truck. She's been concerned about food safety throughout her tenure in Congress, and yesterday, she and California Representative Henry Waxman sent a letter demanding a full investigation into the listeria contamination that's already killed fifteen people.

"This outbreak has been particularly disturbing both for its deadly result and for the continuing health and economic costs it is placing upon American families and businesses," DeGette said in a release announcing the request. "Colorado health authorities did a good job of working with the federal government and quickly determining the farm that is the source of the tainted cantaloupe. However, the inability to track which retailers across the country may be selling these specific melons has not only frightened consumers across the country and jeopardized their health, but has had devastating economic costs for other Colorado and national cantaloupe growers swept up in a recall that did not involve their fruit."

Here's the full text of the letter sent to Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Cliff Stearns and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (DeGette is a ranking member of the former, Waxman of the latter):

October 3, 2011

The Honorable Fred Upton Chairman House Energy and Commerce Committee 2125 Rayburn House Office Building Washington, DC 20515

The Honorable Cliff Stearns Chairman Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations House Energy and Commerce Committee 2125 Rayburn House Office Building Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Upton and Chairman Stearns:

We are writing to request an investigation and hearing on the recent outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupe, the nation's deadliest outbreak of foodborne disease in more than a decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 84 people have been infected with Listeria in 19 states and 15 people have died. An investigation and hearing would allow us to learn about the causes of this outbreak and understand actions that could be taken by industry and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent similar outbreaks in the future.

This outbreak has been linked to whole cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms on fields in Granada, Colorado. On September 14, 2011, FDA announced that Jensen Farms issued a voluntary recall of its Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes due to the Listeria outbreak.

As part of this investigation, we would ask you to request the following information and documents from Jensen Farms, for the period from January 1, 2010, to the present:

1. A description of when and where the Listeria contamination of Jensen Farms cantaloupes was first detected;

2. A description of the identity and source of that contamination;

3. A description of how and when Jensen Farms officials first became aware of the Listeria contamination of its products;

4. The dates that company officials first notified, or were first notified by, federal, state, and local officials of the contamination;

5. The names of all customers to which Jensen Farms has provided cantaloupes in the last 12 months, the dates on which Jensen Farms first notified these customers of any suspected contamination, and copies of all correspondence with these customers relating to suspected contamination;

6. All inspection records relating to any Jensen Farms facilities, including any inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state and local safety officials;

7. All documents relating to any allegations of Listeria or other contamination involving cantaloupes or other products;

9. Documents sufficient to show all Jensen Farms internal protocol and standards for monitoring and analysis of its products;

10. Documents sufficient to show the dates and results of all instances of monitoring or analysis that yielded a positive finding for microbiological contamination;

11. All communications to or from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment regarding any inspections of Jensen Farms facilities or possible Listeria contamination of any food materials or products; and

12. All communications among Jensen Farms personnel relating to possible Listeria contamination of the company's materials, products, facilities, or farms.

Additionally, we ask the majority to schedule bipartisan briefings with officials from Jensen Farms, as well as bipartisan briefings with officials from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We're not sure what happened to the missing item 8 in the letter above, but we hope it concerns help for the farmers in the Rocky Ford area, who've been suffering since the culprit cantaloupes were first identified as "Rocky Ford cantaloupes," when Jensen Farms is actually close to a hundred miles away.

While DeGette and Waxman wait for the response to their letter, they should read this AP story by P. Solomon Banda, which does a good job of tracking the impact on the area.

More from our Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "Listeria hysteria: Paid Sick Leave backers allude to outbreak in sick campaign literature."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun