FDA: Ind. farm tied to salmonella outbreak unclean

October 3, 2012 - 6:35 PM

Melons Salmonella

FILE - In this Aug. 23, 2012 photo, Chamberlain Farm Produce Inc. is seen in Owensville, Ind. A federal inspector found two strains of salmonella and unclean conditions at the farm's fruit-packing plant during visits following a deadly outbreak linked to its melons. The FDA says the farm is the source of at least some of the salmonella outbreak that sickened 270 people in 26 states this summer. (AP Photo/The Evansville Courier & Press, Erin McCracken, File)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A federal inspector found two strains of salmonella and unclean conditions at an Indiana cantaloupe farm's fruit-packing plant during inspections prompted by a deadly outbreak linked to the farm's melons.

The Food and Drug Administration's report on the mid-August inspections at Chamberlain Farm Produce Inc. shows an inspector found improperly cleaned and apparently rusted and corroded equipment. The inspector also found what appeared to be algae growing in standing water beneath conveyer belts at the Owensville, Ind., plant, the report said.

Two strains of salmonella were found on cantaloupes in the farm's fields and on surfaces throughout the packing building located about 20 miles north of Evansville in southwestern Indiana, according to the report, which was posted Tuesday night on the FDA's website.

One salmonella strain was found on cantaloupes that had been processed in the building and boxed, according to the inspector, who wrote that she saw "indications of poor sanitary practices demonstrating contamination" in the fruit-packing building.

On Aug. 22, about a week after the FDA inspections, Chamberlain Farm Produce announced it had voluntarily recalled all of its cantaloupes due to concerns that some might be tainted with salmonella. Six days later, the FDA disclosed that genetic testing on salmonella collected at the farm matched the "DNA fingerprint" of the salmonella strain responsible for this summer's outbreak, making it a source for at least some of the bacteria.

FDA spokeswoman Carla Daniels said Wednesday that the agency is still investigating, but the Indiana farm is the only farm that's been linked to the salmonella outbreak to date.

The outbreak sickened at least 270 people in 26 states and killed three people in Kentucky, according to the FDA. The first cases were reported in July, and the FDA sent its last update on the outbreak on Sept. 13.

Gary Zhao, an attorney for Chamberlain Farm Produce, said in a statement Wednesday that the farm has been cooperating fully with FDA officials.

"While we acknowledge that the FDA report notes certain conditions allegedly observed at Chamberlain Farm, there is nothing in the report to indicate the conditions are a source of or contributed to any reported illnesses," Zhao said.

The Indiana farm last month pulled its watermelons from the market after salmonella was found on some of those fruits, but the farm's attorney has said that no illnesses had been linked to any of its watermelons.

One food safety advocate said she was disappointed but not surprised by the FDA's inspection report, which also found that farm managers were not monitoring the level of chlorine in a water-filled tank that's part of the cantaloupe processing line and had no documentation of the sanitizer's past use.

Barbara Kowalcyk, chief executive officer of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, said she and others pushing for tighter food safety regulations have seen many similar inspection reports over the years.

She said one of the most disconcerting findings in the report is that the packing building used sections of carpet in its cantaloupe processing line — a material the FDA report noted is difficult to adequately clean.

Kowalcyk said many of the nation's fruit and produce growers are "well-meaning" but don't fully understand the safety implications of some of their processing techniques.

"From their perspective, using carpet is a good way to prevent bruising so that they don't have as many losses, financial losses. But carpet is just a huge sponge; it's a really good environment for trapping and growing bacteria," she said. "The reality is that these types of conditions are found at other establishments across the country."

Daniels noted the FDA is under no mandate to inspect farms such as Chamberlain Farm, unlike with food manufacturing plants. Instead, such farm inspections "are conducted on a case by case basis as the situation warrants," she said.