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Listeria-Tainted Cantaloupe: House Seeks Briefing With Jensen Farms Over Outbreak

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DENVER — Members of Congress have requested a briefing with the Colorado cantaloupe farm whose packing facility has been traced to a deadly listeria outbreak.

Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., earlier this month asked for a congressional hearing on the outbreak to learn how to prevent it from happening again. On Friday, they and leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked Jensen Farms to preserve all documents and communications relevant to the investigation for the briefing, before a potential hearing.

Eric Jensen said Friday morning his family had just received the letter. He declined further comment.

Though Republican Fred Upton chairs the committee, DeGette said the panel's history of bipartisan investigations into food safety suggest a hearing on listeria will be set.

In the letter, House committee members said they intend to also hear from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, which has said pools of water on the floor of the farm's packing facility and corroded, hard-to-clean equipment that the farm bought this summer were probably to blame for the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years.

The FDA said the way the cantaloupes were cooled after being picked may have exacerbated the listeria growth. It said bacteria off the farm's field or a truck at the farm that frequently visited a cattle operation also could've been sources of contamination.

The agency said a third of 39 swabs taken throughout the farm's facility tested positive for listeria, indicating poor sanitary practices.

Since the outbreak started in July, 123 people have been sickened, including 25 who died, the CDC said.

DeGette said she wants to know whether a fully funded and implemented food safety law could've prevented such a deadly outbreak.

In January, President Barack Obama signed a bill overhauling the nation's food safety system, with provisions including increased inspections of food facilities. The bill had bipartisan support, but some Republicans had threatened to withhold funding of it.

DeGette said another question is whether there could've been a reason to inspect Jensen Farms under federal or state laws and if contaminated cantaloupes could've been recalled faster.

"There are a lot of questions," DeGette said. "We have gotten some information as to how we think the listeria came to be. Now we need to figure out how to avoid it, or recall the product more quickly."

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