Criminal Charges After Deadly Food Outbreak?

The Colorado farm responsible for one of the nation’s largest listeriosis outbreaks in U.S. history might still be prosecuted under criminal charges, although the possibility seems slim in relation to other food outbreaks, according to the Denver Post. The outbreak, which was linked to tainted cantaloupe, resulted in 29 deaths and 139 illnesses across 26 states, became public knowledge in September when the FDA warned consumers to avoid cantaloupe from the farm. In October the House Energy and Commerce Committee requested an outbriefing on the outbreak. On October 18 the FDA issued a warning letter to the farm, stating they recommended the following post harvest practices:

  1. Using packing equipment designed to facilitate cleaning and sanitation of melon contact surfaces and constructed of materials that may be easily cleaned and sanitized;
  2. Validating and verifying that melon wetting and brushing operations are not a potential source of melon contamination or cross-contamination; and
  3. Cooling and cold storing melons as soon as possible after harvest because delays in cooling when melons with netted rinds (such as cantaloupe) are wet from washing operations may allow for multiplication of human pathogens on the rind surface.

The FDA also stated that 13 of the 39 swabs taken from around the facility tested positive for listeria, indicating  a “widespread contamination throughout [the] facility [that]  indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility.”

According to a recent Denver Post article, the owners of the farm “remain under threat of criminal prosecution for the cantaloupe listeria outbreak that has killed 29 people, but the history of even the most scandalous food poisonings shows such charges are rare.” Recent outbreaks that resulted in nation-wide recalls, such as the 2010 egg recall that sickened 0ver 2,000 did not result in criminal charges, although the recent change in attitude, evidenced by the Food Safety Modernization Act, might signal the beginning of the change.