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The Cantaloupe Crisis:
Audits, Auditors And Food Safety

With 25 people dead and one miscarriage, the horror of the listeriosis outbreak on Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe from Jensen Farms weighs on the industry. To those in the supply chain that have been implicated, they must rise every day carrying the burden of knowing they were part of this catastrophe.

To those not implicated, it is worth remembering that all the work on food safety in cantaloupes was really done on salmonella; listeriosis was not a prominently considered hazard. This means that we have no idea what hazard will pop up next — or on which product.

At first, there was a bit of a trend in the industry to demonize Jensen Farms as if they ran some kind of uniquely low quality facility – a proposition for which there is no evidence.

Then word broke that the packing facility had been audited and received a high mark. So the venom of a world looking for answers turned to attack auditors.

But an audit is not like a grade in high school. One can score very high against a particular standard — say “standard industry practices” — yet very low against another standard – say “best practices” — so a grade on an audit means nothing unless you understand fully against what standard one is being graded.

There are lots of issues:

• What is industry standard — what 90% of facilities do or what 10% of facilities representing 90% of production do?

• How can we avoid giving false assurance to those not going to study audit reports but just look at quick scores?

• If we make audits more rigorous, will it really be acceptable to flunk 80% of the nation’s facilities on these audits? Especially if the operators will never be able to meet the new standards?

• Right now, all the focus is on these horrible deaths. If this is a once-every-hundred years event, how much money will consumers want to spend on cantaloupes to make it a once-every-200-year event?

• Can retailers change procurement strategies to prioritize on food safety?

• Can the FDA articulate clear procedures that growers and packers must follow — and would it do any good?

To address these issues and more, we’ve decided to focus this issue solely on the Cantaloupe Crisis.

May God grant comfort to those who have suffered loss in this affair, and may He grant the industry the wisdom to find a path toward a safer tomorrow.

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