The Listeria monocytogenes strain found on cantaloupes is being blamed for the death of at least 18 people as well as sickening at least 100.
The tainted cantaloupes were sold by Jensen Farms located in Colorado & distributed all over the country. The Center for Disease Control has reported Listeria related illness in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin & Wyoming. Jensen Farms recalled the cantaloupes in mid-September.
At the same time this was happening, listeria also popped up on romaine lettuce that was being sold by True Leaf Farms of Salinas, California. Currently there have been no reports of illness from this lettuce as not much of it was distributed & what did get distributed was recalled quickly.
How the listeria got on the cantaloupes & the lettuce is still not clear. Some suspect that listeria got into the fertilizer that was being used on the farms or in the water that was being used for irrigation. Cantaloupe have a semi-porous rough exterior that may allow for bacteria to hide more easily on the outside of the cantaloupe. While the exterior was probably thick enough to prevent listeria from penetrating directly into the fruit, upon cutting open the cantaloupe the knife used would spread contamination from the outside rind onto the inner fruit. Making things more complicated is that listeria is a very hardy bacteria. It is not easily killed by heat or cold & washing produce thoroughly may not be enough to remove the bacteria. Some have suggested using an antibacterial soap & to thoroughly scrub your fruits before consuming. If you do have known contaminated fruit you should dispose of it immediately & sanitize the area the fruit was being stored such as countertops or fridges.
Those most at risk of serious infection are the usual suspects: children, elderly, pregnant women or those who are ill. A miscarriage has been blamed on the cantaloupe listeria outbreak. People who have chronic digestive illness should be especially cautious, such as those with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis or Gastroparesis as listeria infection will most likely exacerbate their symptoms. Also it’s important that those who are healthy not “poo poo” the risks of listeria as it’s been shown that infection is often key to triggering a chronic digestive problem like IBS or Gastroparesis or that if you do get sick & need antibiotics, they could put you more at risk of developing Crohn’s Disease.
Food producers may be in a bit of a bind when it comes to preventing food-borne illness as there is no silver bullet. While some may suggest bulk washing on the farm is key, this may actually accelerate the spread of bacteria between different batches of produce. Harsher chemicals could be used to try & sanitize the produce but this may damage the produce or cause consumers to balk at the use of more chemicals coming in contact with their food. Others have suggested food irradiation as a way to destroy harmful pathogens, but the same problems with sanitizing via chemicals exist with irradiation as it can have an impact on the quality of the produce & there is rampant consumer fear regarding anything that might involve radiation. Costco is looking to implement a “hold until tested” methodology which prevents produce from going on sale until it has been tested. Testing could take up to 48 hours which is a long time considering produce is often very perishable.