WASHINGTON - Pools of water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment at a Colorado farm’s cantaloupe-packing facility were probably to blame for the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday. Government investigators found positive samples of listeria bacteria on equipment in the Jensen Farms packing facility and on fruit that had been held there.
In a six-page assessment of the conditions at the farm based on investigators’ visits in September, the FDA said Jensen Farms had recently purchased used equipment that was corroded, dirty and hard to clean. The packing facility floors were also constructed so they were hard to clean, so pools of water potentially harboring the bacteria formed close to the packing equipment.
The dirty equipment — purchased in July, the same month the outbreak started — was previously used to wash and dry potatoes, the agency said, and the listeria “could have been introduced as a result of past use of the equipment,” according to the report.
FDA officials said that they are not concerned about similar listeria contamination in the potatoes that were previously processed on the equipment because those vegetables are rarely eaten raw. Cooking can kill the bacteria.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 123 people have been sickened in the outbreak, including the 25 who died. It is the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. since an outbreak of listeria in Mexican-style cheese in 1985.
How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables
-Start by keeping your kitchen countertops, refrigerator, cookware and cutlery clean.
-Always wash your hands before preparing meals and handling fruits and vegetables.
-Keep fresh greens, fruits and vegetables away from uncooked meats to avoid cross-contamination.
-Choose healthy looking, ripe fruits and vegetables when you shop. Avoid bruised, moldy and mushy produce.
-Wait until just before you eat or prepare your fruits and vegetables to wash them. Fruits and vegetables have natural coatings that keep moisture inside, and washing them will make them spoil sooner.
-Wash all pre-packaged fruits and vegetables, even if the label claims they are pre-washed.
-Wash all parts of your fruits and vegetables, even if you don't plan on eating them. Bacteria can live on the rind of an orange or the skin of a cucumber, for example. Though you may peel them away and toss them in the trash, the bacteria can be transferred from the outside of the fruit or vegetable to the knife you use to cut them, and then onto the parts you will be eating.
-Gently rub fruits and vegetables under running water. Don't use any soaps, detergents, bleaches or other toxic cleaning chemicals. These chemicals will leave a residue of their own on your produce.
-Commercial sprays and washes sold for cleaning vegetables really aren't any better than cleaning thoroughly with plain water, so don't waste your money on them.
-Firmer fruits and vegetables, such as apples and potatoes, can be scrubbed with a vegetable brush (buy direct) while rinsing with clean water to remove dirt and residues.
-Remove and discard the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage heads, and thoroughly rinse the rest of the leaves.
-Rinse berries and other small fruits thoroughly and allow them to drain in a colander.
-Remember that the fruits and vegetables you buy may look clean when you pick them out at the grocery store, but you can't see bacteria or chemicals. Your fruits and vegetables still need to be washed before you eat them or serve them to guests or family members. This is especially important for produce and greens that are eaten raw.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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