THE Associated Press reported recently that "the owners of a Colorado cantaloupe farm were arrested ... on charges stemming from a 2011 listeria epidemic that killed 33 people in one of the nation's deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illness."
The scope of the recall and the number of illnesses and deaths it caused outweighed 99.9% of the outbreaks caused by meat products. The troubling part? It was entirely preventable.
The owners, Eric and Ryan Jensen, had purchased used, rusty potato washing equipment to wash their cantaloupes — probably not the wisest decision. To compound their sin, they allowed water to pool on the floor, a well-known harborage for Listeria.
According to the Associated Press story, in addition to the inadequate equipment and poor sanitation practices, "another possible source of contamination was a truck that frequently hauled cantaloupe to a cattle operation and was parked near the packing house."
One of the most vocal defenders of farming and ranching, a certain mustachioed cowboy active in social media circles, expressed his outrage at the arrest on Facebook, writing: "All farmers take note! No malice, no intent, no knowledge, no negligence, no criminal act."
The responses to his message included one from a person who thought the consumer was at fault for not washing the product and another who called the arrest a witch hunt.
"No malice, intent, knowledge or negligence?" No excuse, the legal folks will reply.
It appears that the owners of the plant made at least three critical mistakes that they should have known about beforehand. Maybe there was no malice and no intent by the Jensens, but as fair warning: when a farmer decides to become a processor, he must obtain the necessary good handling knowledge — first.
To ignore things that are well known to every food processor in America is proof of negligence to me and tantamount to a criminal act, too. The consequences of their actions killed at least 33 people. Going after the Jensens is definitely not a witch hunt.
The product that did the most damage, by the way, wasn't whole cantaloupe; it was cut pieces, which are difficult to wash.
Because foodborne pathogens are not observable to the naked eye, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration have always said the responsibility to put a safe product into commerce lies with the processor.
Of course, the consumer has a responsibility for reasonable care once the product is in the home, but it must be made as safe as possible before it reaches the retailer — says every rule, every regulation, every law and every court case.
So, beware, ranchers and farmers who are thinking about selling their meat and produce directly to retailers or distant consumers outside the local farmers market. The rules and regulations for interstate commerce or serving markets outside your home territory are far different and more restrictive from those that you know. You absolutely must learn them well before you take that step.
Doing the "perp walk" into the nearest federal courthouse and entering a plea to a charge that your actions killed people is the unpleasant alternative.
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.