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Listeria lawsuits question food safety audits

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Lawsuits filed by victims of a 2011 Listeria outbreak that killed four New Mexicans and severely sickened a fifth raise questions about the effectiveness of food safety inspections required by many retailers.

The New Mexico victims were among 33 people killed nationally by bacterial infections linked to cantaloupes grown at a farm in Colorado, making it one of the deadliest outbreaks of food-borne illness in U.S. history.

A focus of the five New Mexico lawsuits, and dozens of others in the U.S., is a California food safety auditing firm, PrimusLabs, that gave the Colorado cantaloupe packing operation a score of 96 percent and a “superior” rating just weeks before the outbreak, the lawsuits contend.

The New Mexico lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, also name Walmart Stores, where the families say they purchased the tainted cantaloupes, and Frontera Produce, a Texas-based produce distributor.

A contractor hired by PrimusLabs inspected Jensen Farms in July 2011 and gave the cantaloupe packing operation the superior rating, allowing it to continue selling cantaloupes, the lawsuits contend.

In September 2011, health officials announced a multistate Listeria outbreak that ultimately infected 147 people in 28 states, including 15 in New Mexico. Later that month, federal and Colorado health officials inspected Jensen Farms, finding 13 confirmed samples of Listeria strains linked to the outbreak.

Listeria monocytogenes, a bacteria commonly found in soil and water, contaminated the husks of the cantaloupe, possibly from equipment or standing water at the packing plant, federal officials reported.

The New Mexico lawsuits were filed by family members of four people who died of Listeriosis, a serious illness caused by eating food tainted by Listeria bacteria.

Those who died were: Florence Wilcox, 96, of Hobbs; John Martin, 77, of Gallup; and Rene Gaxiola, 63, and Vernon Christiansen, 93, both of Albuquerque.

A fifth lawsuit was filed by Chris Wallace, 53, of Santa Fe, who suffered brain damage as a result of Listeriosis.

The food safety audits were intended to ensure that Jensen Farms cantaloupes “would be of high quality for consumers, and would not be contaminated by potentially lethal pathogens, like Listeria,” the lawsuits contend.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who filed the five New Mexico lawsuits and 41 others nationally related to the outbreak, said Walmart requires its produce suppliers to contract with PrimusLabs for food safety audits.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said he was unable to discuss the company’s relationship with PrimusLabs or other details of the lawsuits.

“At Walmart, we are committed to our customers’ safety and we take food safety concerns like this very seriously,” Hargrove said in a written statement. Walmart began removing Jensen Farm cantaloupes from stores as soon as it was made aware of the outbreak, he said.

A spokeswoman for Frontera Produce did not respond to a request for comment. PrimusLabs responded in federal court records that microbial testing for pathogens such as Listeria are beyond the scope of food safety audits.

PrimusLabs has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuits, saying the New Mexico families did not show that PrimusLabs “was requested to but failed to perform microbiological testing,” which is the only way to detect Listeria.

Nor do the lawsuits provide facts “to suggest that an audit of a packinghouse to determine compliance with certain cleanliness standards creates the risk of a national Listeria outbreak,” attorneys for PrimusLabs wrote.

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