FDA suggests ‘widespread contamination’ at Chamberlain

01/03/2013 11:05:00 AM
Coral Beach

(UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:20 p.m.) Four months after inspecting the farm, Food and Drug Administration officials suggested that the owner of Chamberlain Farm Produce Inc. check his operation for “a source of wide-spread contamination” in relation to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 261 and killed three in 2012.

Cantaloupe grower Tim Chamberlain said in a press release, issued through his attorney, that he has already had an independent microbiologist investigate the situation.

Chamberlain contends the bacteria responsible for the outbreak “was present on surrounding lands and ... the source of the bacterial contamination was not (his) packing facilities, equipment or operations.”

The FDA’s warning letter said environmental tests at Chamberlain’s outdoor packing facility — as well as cantaloupe samples from his fields and at retail — tested positive for the outbreak strains, as did his growing fields.

Despite those findings, Chamberlain said in his press release that “the overwhelming evidence is that the bacterium that caused human illness ... was unrelated to any observed conditions of the (Chamberlain Farm Produce) operating procedures ...”

FDA inspectors first visited the Owensville, Ind., farm Aug. 14. The agency’s Detroit district office sent a warning letter to Chamberlain on Dec. 14; it did not appear on the FDA website until Jan. 2.

The warning letter cites conditions the FDA reported on Oct. 3 and gives Chamberlain 15 days from receipt of the letter to respond.

Chamberlain’s lawyer, Gary Zhao, said on Jan. 2 he was preparing a written response.

The FDA warning letter was sent 11 weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the salmonella outbreak over on Oct. 5.

Before the Dec. 14 letter, FDA officials had not publically raised the issue of a possible source of widespread contamination at Chamberlain Farms. The letter notes that samples from Chamberlain’s growing fields “which were separated by more than a mile” tested positive for salmonella strains that were indistinguishable from those that sickened people in 24 states.

The FDA letter also states that some wellheads providing water for the cantaloupe operation were not capped. Also, wells that were capped were not appropriately sealed, according to the letter.

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