Friday, January 4, 2013

Don't Keep the Regulators or Reporters Waiting

I regularly get up on my podium -- some might call it my high horse -- and preach about the need to return media phone calls and to never answer questions with "No comment." That's a bad thing. But failing to respond to regulators is an even worse thing to do.

Take Chamberlain Farms in Owensville, Indiana, as a great example from today's news. Chamberlain was a headline last August when DNA testing revealed that cantaloupe from that farm was the source of a salmonella outbreak that sickened 261 people and killed three. Failure to follow through has Chamberlain Farms right back into the headlines again.

"FDA listed conditions inspectors found at the plant that may have contributed to product contamination, including organic material on the cantaloupe conveyor, debris beneath the conveyor belt, standing water on the floor of the packinghouse below conveyor belts and on the drip table, bird excrement in the rafters and a sloping roof that can allow water to flow onto the brush washer and conveyor belt."  (http://www.producenews.com/index.php/news-dep-menu/test-featured/9389-chamberlain-farms-cited-by-fda-for-salmonella-insanitary-conditions) Also, the farm didn't cool melons after harvest, which can allow pathogens on the rind surface.

"Based on all of these sample results, we have determined that the cantaloupes in your packinghouse are adulterated," FDA said in the warning letter. Chamberlain Farms had 15 days, until December 29, to formally respond to FDA's warning with the specific steps taken to correct the violations and to prevent future problems -- and presumably to keep out of the news.

"Gary Zhao, an attorney for Chamberlain Farms, said the farm was sending its response to the FDA's letter Thursday.
He said he could not comment on how the outbreak and subsequent investigation had impacted the farm financially, but Zhao said in a Thursday statement that testing by a microbiologist hired by the farm suggests the bacteria that caused the outbreak did not come from the farm's fields.

"He said 'overwhelming evidence' points to land adjacent to the Owensville farm's melon fields — and not the farm's packing facilities, equipment or operations — as the likely source of the bacterial contamination investigators found on the farm's cantaloupes." (http://www.wsbt.com/health/wsbt-indiana-farm-says-salmonella-came-from-outside-farm-20130103,0,5520777.story)

Zhao said Chamberlain, nevertheless, decided not to grow cantaloupes this year and has already dismantled and disposed of its cantaloupe packing equipment. He said the farm has also tested well water used to irrigate its fields and upgraded those wells. He added that "the farm will continue to work with the FDA cooperatively to further delve into the root cause and source of contamination so that lessons can be learned for the benefit of others who are later engaged in cantaloupe production."

I praise Zhao's openness, but not his timeliness. Why not respond to the FDA letter by the deadline imposed? Perhaps that would have made this a non-story. Chamberlain certainly doesn't want its name associated with salmonella in cantaloupes or any other produce.

The Packer newsletter had this to say on December 28: "The latest in a series of deadly, high-profile cases of foodborne illness linked to fresh produce again pushed food safety and traceability to the top of the industry’s agenda.... The recall of Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe linked to a salmonella outbreak hit other growers hard when customers took a guilt-by-association approach to buying because the specific grower wasn’t named for six days." (http://www.thepacker.com/fruit-vegetable-news/marketing-profiles/Chamberlain-cantaloupe-outbreak-185071321.html)

Tim and Mia Chamberlain voluntarily recalled their cantaloupes a day before two deaths in Kentucky were linked to their produce. They should be as quick with their communications as they were with their melon recall.

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