Contaminated cantaloupe becoming a problem

( CC BY-ND 2.0)

Nicole Bullard

Colorado-grown produce have been linked to a number of deaths this summer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Somehow, the cantaloupe and equipment in the packing operation of Jensen Farms in eastern Colorado have been vulnerable to the food-borne pathogen Listeria.

The outbreak of Listeria began on or after July 31 and has effected many states, all from the contamination of cantaloupes in eastern Colorado.

Official reports as of 11 a.m. EDT on Sept. 29 said the pathogen outbreak has caused 84 people to fall ill and claimed 15 lives in eight states, the CDC said.

This is the first time Listeria has ever been spread by cantaloupe. Cantaloupe is susceptible to many food-borne illnesses, but the Listeria outbreak is considered highly unusual, the CDC said.

It is unknown exactly how the Listeria contamination occurred, but the prevailing speculation is that a cantaloupe’s tough skin can trap bacteria in its surfaces. Therefore, there are hazards to growing, packaging, and distributing the produce.

Another factor to cantaloupe susceptibility is irrigation and soil which could possibly be contaminated with pathogens, the CDC said. Heavy rains can wash contaminated soil into the fields where cantaloupe is grown.

The produce has many chances to be contaminated because some variables are difficult to avoid and are difficult to detect.

The FDA has investigated reports of contaminated cantaloupe from Jensen Farms, and have concluded that the process of packaging can sometimes contaminate the cantaloupe. Workers handling the cantaloupe can infect the fruit with pathogens as well.

The FDA is still trying to find the root cause of the Listeria contamination in the cantaloupes, and how it can be avoided. The contamination has already surpassed the amount of infections and lives claimed by any other Listeria contamination in recent years.

Listeria mainly effects older adults, adults with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, and newborns. If a person becomes infected with Listeria, their symptoms range from body aches, fatigue, confusion, to far more severe symptoms. The diagnosis for one that has eaten Listeria contaminated food is called Listeriosis.

The cantaloupe from Jensen Farms, Rocky Ford brand cantaloupe, is known to be contaminated with Listeria, however, all other cantaloupes are safe to eat. While shopping for produce, buying any cantaloupe with an unknown source is not advisable.

The Colorado Department of Health has identified Listeria monocytogenes bacteria on cantaloupes in grocery stores and in households where people have fallen ill after eating cantaloupe.

Listeriosis is a slow reacting illness that can take two months to develop after eating the contaminated food. If there is any risk, consulting a doctor immediately is recommended, especially for people who have a higher susceptibility than others.

It is important to treat produce with care. General advice from the FDA on safety includes proper cleaning of the produce and adequate refrigeration. Produce like cantaloupe should be consumed immediately and should be refrigerated for no more than a week. 

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