The FDA sent a warning letter to Chamberlain Farms, the grower responsible for the 2012 cantaloupe Salmonella outbreak that sickened over 250 people in 24 states. Three of them died.

Epidemiological investigations, traceback investigations, and analytical results linked cantaloupes grown and packed by Chamberlain Farms to the nationwide outbreak involving two strains of Salmonella enterica: Salmonella Typhimurium and Salmonella Newport.  The primary evidence linking the Salmonella illnesses to Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe is as follows:

  • On August 16, 2012, during the FDA inspection at Chamberlain Farms, FDA investigators collected multiple cantaloupe samples from the company’s packinghouse. Each sample consisted of twenty cantaloupes taken from cardboard boxes in the Chamberlain Farms packinghouse. One subsample (one cantaloupe) yielded a strain of Salmonella Newport which had a PFGE pattern indistinguishable from the outbreak strain of Salmonella Newport.
  • On August 17, 2012 FDA investigators collected a sample from a distributorthat consisted of 20 cantaloupes which had been grown, harvested, packed, and introduced into interstate commerce by Chamberlain Farms. Analysis of this sample identified Salmonella Newport, which was indistinguishable by PFGE analyses from the outbreak strain of Salmonella Newport, as well as Salmonella Anatum, a serotype not associated with the outbreak.
  • Inspectors from the Kentucky Department of Public Health (KDPA) collected Chamberlain Farms cantaloupes at a retail establishment on August 3, 2012. According to the shipping from the retail establishment, these cantaloupes originated at Chamberlain Farms. KDPA conducted analyses, including pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE), on these samples. Salmonella Typhimurium with a PFGE pattern indistinguishable from that of the outbreak stain of Salmonella Typhimurium was isolated from two of the sampled cantaloupes.
  • During the inspection, FDA investigators also collected 50 environmental swabs from food contact and adjacent surfaces in the Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe packinghouse. Salmonella Newport with a PFGE pattern indistinguishable from that of the outbreak strain was isolated from seven of 50 these environmental swabs and Salmonella Anatum was isolated from two of 50 environmental swabs.

These findings are “smoking gun” evidence linking Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe to the Salmonella illnesses.

During the inspection, FDA investigators documented the following conditions and practices that may have contributed to the contamination of Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe with Salmonella:

  1. Accumulated organic material on multiple locations of the cantaloupe conveyer, including rollers and belts (which are food contact surfaces). These are likely harborages for pathogenic organisms such as Salmonella. Specifically, Salmonella Newport was found on the belt of 2nd conveyer, below the final belt, and on the north and south belt kicks.
  2. Debris including trash, wood, food pieces, standing water, mud, and dirt beneath the conveyer belt in the cantaloupe packinghouse.
  3. Standing water, apparently containing algae, on the floor of the packinghouse, directly below the first four conveyer belts of the packing line and on the drip table below the bristle conveyer belt where cantaloupes are being washed and rinsed.
  4. Bird excrement in the rafters above food contact surfaces (e.g., brush rollers, conveyor belts, grading table) and directly on the processing line itself. Allowing birds to roost in your packing facility could allow them to defecate directly on to food products during conveyance, grading, and sorting.
  5. The roof of the cantaloupe packinghouse was sloped such that any water washing from the roof, along with any debris present on the roof, would flow onto the brush washer and conveyor belt directly under the roof overhang.
  6. Materials that could not be effectively cleaned or sanitized and may trap and harbor water, organic materials, and pathogens were used as food contact surfaces (i.e., carpeting and wood used as cushioning or directional mechanisms for conveyances). Specifically, Salmonella Newport was found in environmental sample taken from carpet at the northwest end of the middle grading table.
  7. Some wellheads were not capped; wells that were capped were not appropriately sealed; there was no apparent grouting of the annular spaces of well shaft; and the wells were not protected from intrusion by standing water. We note that FDA water samples from the wells and spigots utilized for cantaloupe processing were positive for Coliforms and Escherichia coli. A properly protected well should not have any coliforms or Escherichia. coli.

The FDA warning letter requires Chamberlain Farms to notify the FDA in writing within fifteen (15) working days from the date it received the letter of the specific steps the company has taken to correct the noted violations, including an explanation of how the company plans to prevent these violations, or other similar violations, from occurring in the future.

Victims of this outbreak and their families want more than an FDA warning letter; they want compensation for the suffering caused by these tainted melons. You can contact Salmonella lawyer Fred Pritzker and his Bad Bug Law Team for a free consultation here and talk to an attorney about a lawsuit against Chamberlain Farms and others. For more information, please read about the Chamberlain Farms cantaloupe recall.