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Unpacking lessons from Colorado's cantaloupe listeria scare

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Cantaloupe farmers across the country took a hit after the 2011 outbreak, which caused melon consumption to drop. (File: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)
Cantaloupe farmers across the country took a hit after the 2011 outbreak, which caused melon consumption to drop. (File: Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media)

When Colorado cantaloupe laden with the deadly pathogen listeria killed more than 30 people in 2011, shockwaves rippled throughout the food industry. The outbreak made one thing clear: huge cracks exist in the systems meant to keep our food safe to eat. Denver Post reporters Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown set out to explore those conflicts within food safety in their new book "Eating Dangerously: Why the government can't keep your food safe...and how you can."

There’s been huge fallout from the listeria outbreak.

The farm that originated the bacteria-laden melons, Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado shut down. Federal prosecutors charged the farm’s owners, brothers Ryan and Eric Jensen, with criminal negligence, a first in modern foodborne illness outbreaks. The brothers were sentenced early this year to five years probation and six months of home detention. A slew of lawsuits have been filed in the wake as well. Wal-Mart is suing the auditing firm that gave the Jensens farm a clean bill of health, another possible precedent-setting piece of litigation. Neighboring cantaloupe farmers also took a blow when consumption of fresh cantaloupe took a dive.

The 2011 case is the deadliest example of a fairly common occurrence: foodborne illness spread in the U.S. Booth and Brown say they wanted to examine how this particular outbreak happened and how it relates to the dozens of other outbreaks that grab headlines.

Interview Highlights

On what consumers can do:

Michael Booth: “One thing that [we] have both done, tried harder to be better at, is making sure that when you pick out raw meats and produce you keep them separately. You don’t want the juices from the raw meat dripping all over the produce in the bottom of your cart.”

Jennifer Brown: “At least wash the outside of the cantaloupe. I even now take to washing it with soap and water on the outside, scrubbing the rind before you’re going to cut through the melon because you can pull bacteria that might be on the outside of the rind all the way through the cantaloupe. And then you stick that in your refrigerator. Listeria loves to be cold and continues to grow on the cold, sliced cantaloupe.”

On how the current food safety system functions:

Brown: “One of the disturbing things we found during our reporting is that instead of having a federal government inspector, because there aren’t enough of those, the farms and food producers hire someone themselves called a third-party auditor and that person comes out to the farm and does the inspection and is paid for by the farmer.”

Booth: “When someone is paying you to do the report and when you come back with your report, it’s not really in your best interest to be as hard as you can possibly be and tell them how many things they’re doing wrong. Or to follow up and say, ‘Did you fix those things that we told you to fix?’ No one does that in our system.”

On surprises when writing about food safety:

Brown: “I think, personally, there was a period of time where [we] were researching this where we were both a bit neurotic about everything we ate and everything we cooked. And sort of learned how to deal with that. After about 3 months or so we calmed down and absorbed some of these things into our daily life and some of them not. I mean it changes you to know everything we found out. For example, the chicken that’s covered in salmonella when you buy it, and how you handle that chicken when you take it home. And the fact that the piece of produce you pick up at the supermarket hasn’t ever been inspected by a government official, and it changes the way you treat that grape or apple or whatever it is that you have. I wash everything now before I put it in my mouth.”