Listeria Lawsuits Could Target Grocers, Auditor

November 8, 2011

An outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe blamed for the deaths of 29 people could be costly for grocery stores, a distributor and an auditing lab.

Whole or pre-cut Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe from Colorado-based Jensen Farms have been traced as the cause of what has become the deadliest U.S. food-borne listeria outbreak in a quarter century.

According to the Denver Post, Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., does not have enough insurance to cover the estimated $100 million in damages that could result from the outbreak. The farm has been identified by federal officials as a source of the outbreak.

Attorneys say distributor Frontera Produce of Texas and PrimusLabs of California could also be liable.

PrimusLabs president Bob Stovicek says their standards were adequate. Frontera Produce declined to comment.

The deadliest known food-borne listeria outbreak in the United States was in 1985 when a Jalisco Products’ Mexican-style soft cheese contaminated with listeria killed 18 adults and 10 newborns, and caused 20 miscarriages.

The illness has a long incubation period, with symptoms sometimes not showing up until two months after people consume listeria-tainted foods.

In a warning letter to Jensen Farms on Oct. 18, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said testing turned up widespread listeria contamination at its Granada, Colorado, packing plant, which “indicates poor sanitary practices in the facility.”

The elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are most at risk of falling ill from listeriosis. Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea and other gastric problems.

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