Listeria outbreak highlights oversight limitations

cantaloupe

DENVER — The Listeria contamination traced to a Colorado cantaloupe farm was the worst foodborne illness outbreak in nearly a century, and yet the Food and Drug Administration is still struggling to get a handle on how to prevent another outbreak while Congress keeps cutting the agency’s funding.

The Listeria outbreak shows that government oversight of food safety has a long way to go.

The Colorado Listeria outbreak that killed 30 people and sickened dozens sounded a red alert on the nation’s food safety system.

“It’s changed everyone’s lives in my family ,” said Jennifer Exley, whose father was made critically ill from eating tainted cantaloupe.

84-year-old Herb Stevens of Littleton is now permanently disabled and requires numerous medications.

“We are very bitter about somebody just simply eating a cantaloupe,” said Exley, “And then getting so sick that they’re hospitalized or in a nursing home for almost two months.”

The FDA was supposed to have more authority to enforce tougher food safety standards beginning in January, but the agency still struggles against congressional budget cuts.

“They were supposed to get $1.5 billion … instead they got $39 million,” said Danny Katz, executive director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group.

Consumer groups and the FDA itself say they simply don’t have enough manpower to inspect some 300,000 processing plants and farms to improve safety.

“It’s unconscionable that we are not prioritizing the preventative pieces,” said Katz.

The FDA is requesting an additional $220 million in next year’s budget–to be paid for by food processors and handlers–and to write new guidelines for each food category.

“It took deaths to bring about that change,” said Dr. Sheryl Zajdowicz, a Metropolitan State College microbiology professor and food pathogen expert, “And unfortunately that’s the sad truth and so while this is certainly a devastation it will result in changes.”

But the changes can’t be enforced unless they can get more FDA inspectors into places like Jensen Farms.

“Which is to prioritize prevention and not reacting to these foodborne illnesses; unfortunately they just don’t have the funding,” said Katz.

“You expect the food sources to be safe and they aren’t safe,” said Jennifer Exley.

Exley’s mother and father are suing Jensen Farms and the private company that gave Jensen Farms a passing inspection report.

Many say those private inspectors and their cozy relationships with food processors are a major part of the food safety problem.

A recent report to Congress blasted those relationships and concluded more must be done to address the issue.