Killer Cantaloupes may be Alarming Sign of Larger Trend

By Rebecca Jones

In what is already being called the worst food outbreak in over a decade, contaminated cantaloupes have already caused 13 documented and three more suspected fatalities and 72 illnesses. What’s even worse is that this may just be the first in a new trend of listeria contaminated produce items.

Listeria is one of the most deadly of all food borne bacteria, responsible for killing approximately 30% of those that become infected and sending 90% of all elderly who become infected to the hospital. Up until recently listeria was found predominately in deli meats and soft cheeses; twenty-one people died in 1998 after contracting listeria from contaminated hot dogs and 52 people were killed after ingesting contaminated queso fresco, a Mexican style soft cheese, in 1985. Now it appears that in the past two years the bacteria has moved on to produce first appearing in sprouts in 2009, then in celery in 2010 and now in cantaloupe. While it tends to only affect those with a weakened immune system, such as the very young or the elderly, it has also been linked to miscarriage and stillbirth in pregnant women.

As of this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified 72 illnesses, 13 of which resulted in death, from the current outbreak but that number is expected to rise. Listeria has an unusually long incubation period meaning that people that consume contaminated melon may go weeks before showing signs of illness. Listeria is also one of the only food borne bacteria that can continue to live and grow in a refrigerated environment so many people may still have contaminated melons or fruit salads in their refrigerators.

The melons responsible for the current outbreak have been identified as being produced by Jensen Farms of Colorado and are labeled as “Rocky Ford” brand. People are advised to check the source of any melons in their home and if they believe they may be contaminated to throw them out immediately and sanitize any surface they may have touched. The FDA is being called upon by public health officials to enact new guidelines and regulations to help protect produce from common pathogens such as listeria in the hopes of curbing this alarming trend in deadly produce.