Careful About The Cantaloupes
The U.S FDA (Food & Drug Administration) issued warnings to the public about an outbreak of listeria infections which has sickened 84 people and caused the deaths of at least 15 people. The cantaloupes responsible for the illness have been identified to have come from Jensen Farms of Holly, Colorado. This has been the deadliest in the United States since 1998.
What is Listeria?
Listeria monocytogenes is a pathogen (a disease causing bacteria or virus) found in soil and water and often turns up in processed meats. The bacteria can thrive in low temperatures – such as the refrigerator. Eating food contaminated by the bacteria can cause serious infection. Listeria is common in unpasteurized cheeses and milk, but not as common in produce. However, in the past two years, there have been a number of produce-related listeria illnesses, such as sprouts in 2009, celery in 2010 and now cantaloupe.
The infection starts off with fever, muscle aches and gastrointestinal symptoms. In humans, infections typically tend to have a long incubation - a few weeks to two months. While nobody is sure how the cantaloupes may have been contaminated, one possibility is that listeria got on the outside of the cantaloupe either at the farm or at the packing facility and then contaminated the edible portions when it was cut. The fruit may have been kept in the refrigerator for some time where it may have grown further.
A global food platter
Have you observed the ingredients or thought about the source of different foods that make their way to your dinner plate each day? You may be surprised to learn that food travels great distances, and undergoes various processes on its journey from the farm to your table. The food chain is very complex with many steps. The more steps there are, the harder it can be to identify the source of an outbreak.
What is striking is that food is sensitive and easily affected by microbes all along its route from farm to fork. The cantaloupe grown on the Colorado field may have made four or five stops before it was eaten.
- packing house - where it was cleaned and packaged,
- distributor - contracts with retailers to sell the melons in large quantities,
- processor - cuts or bags the fruit,
- retail distribution center - where the melons are sent out to various stores,
- grocery store - where it is stacked for display.
The infected cantaloupes have traveled far and wide and producer Jensen Farms doesn't even know exactly where their fruit ended up!
What is being done about outbreaks?
Given the global nature of the food industry, it is nearly impossible to prevent outbreaks completely. At the first sign of trouble, authorities work to contain the infection and issue recall of suspected items. The FDA recently set up a network of veterinarians, microbiologists, environmental health specialists, emergency coordinators among others, to respond quickly to human and animal illness outbreaks.
At the home, we should consider buying local produce – such as at farmers markets. Besides supporting local farmers, we may be able to reduce the chain from farm to fork. Remember to always sanitize work areas, hands and food thoroughly before cooking or serving food.
What are some ways you would recommend to keep food safe? If you were the FDA what would you do to contain and manage outbreaks?