DENVER (AP) — A food safety expert told Colorado farmers Thursday that last year's deadly listeria outbreak traced to Colorado cantaloupe proved that they cannot rely on third-party inspections to guarantee their produce is safe.
Larry Goodridge, associate professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, told farmers that they bear primary responsibility for food safety.
"Each farm or processing facility has to be able to assess their own risks," Goodridge told the governor's annual forum on Colorado agriculture in Denver. "Everybody who produces food has to be responsible for the safety of the food they produce. You cannot rely on third parties. You just can't."
The listeria outbreak traced to Jensen Farms in eastern Colorado last year was blamed for the deaths of 32 people. It infected 146 people in 28 states with one of four strains of the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jensen Farms was given a "superior" inspection rating by a third-party auditor just before the outbreak.
Listeria generally is found in processed meats and unpasteurized milk and cheese, though there have been a growing number of outbreaks in produce.
The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate third-party auditors, and a congressional report released in January quoted the auditing company that graded Jensen farms as saying audits are not intended to improve food safety standards.
Retailers often rely on such audits in an effort to make sure food is safe, the report said.
A food safety law passed last year would boost federal inspections of growers — but the money to fund it isn't guaranteed from Congress. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama's proposed budget would eliminate the Agriculture Department's Microbiological Data Program, the nation's only program that regularly tests fruits and vegetables for deadly pathogens.
Goodridge said that growers who hire auditors often are looking for a thorough assessment of how they are running their operations — but that the auditors might instead perform generic walk-throughs.
He urged farmers to focus on sanitary practices such as keeping equipment and storage areas clean. He also urged them to educate the public on ways to safely handle produce in the same manner as consumers are advised how to safely handle meat.
The FDA said last year that melons at Jensen Farms likely were contaminated in the operation's packing house, which was using secondhand, hard-to-clean equipment. Melons in the field tested negative.
The new food safety law requires the FDA to improve third-party audits of food facilities abroad that export to the United States, but it does not address domestic audits.