Only as good as your worst supplier: Rockmelon growers in Australia suffering through outbreak (so are the sick and the families of the 4 dead)

I was wrong.

When I said Australia is about 20 years behind North America in micro food safety terms, I really meant 40, because that’s when the Brisbane-raised Bee Gees were on the charts with Saturday Night Fever.

When it comes to public disclosure and on-farm food safety of fresh produce, Australia is only 20 years behind North America.

It was 1998 when I and many in my lab started working on this problem.

What I soon realized is that government doesn’t give a shit. As sales of an implicated commodity collapse because of a real or imagined outbreak of foodborne illness, the bureaucrats keep their jobs.

Farms go bankrupt.

With 4 dead and 17 sick from Listeria in rockmelon (cantaloupe), this notion has occurred to at least one Western Australian melon grower who is rightly pissed about the lack of information from government, growers, and anyone else.

Dane Capogreco, one of the directors of Capogreco Farms in Western Australia says the incident is an isolated case of “negligence” and the whole of the country’s melon industry should not be judged by the actions of one grower.

“The vast majority of growers are doing the right thing. One grower has done the wrong thing and the rest of us are paying the price.”

“It’s very concerning that the grower responsible (from the New South Wales Riverina region) hasn’t come forward to take action,” Mr Capogreco said. “He knew that he had it, and has destroyed the industry. I don’t believe it’s spreadable but it probably happened through the way he handled or washed the fruit post-harvest”

“It (previously) was very good – Australia had a good name. We have a clean, green product. We can’t compete on price alone, but we sell on trust because of our name. Now one guy has set us back a long way.”

He added that his company’s test results are on their website.

That’s a good claim, and something I’ve endorsed for 20 years, but a visit to the website found no such data available, just an eternal circle click.

Something about throwing stones from glass houses.

And again, the Colorado farm in the 2011 Listeria in cantaloupe that killed 33 and sickened at least 140 people in 26 states received a score of 96% in a third-party audit completed by Primus Labs only six days prior to the first reported illness.

Growers, take microbial food safety into your own hands (literally) and be able to prove your product is safe.

Retailers, market microbial food safety at retail.

Then consumers can choose.

(Me and the ex saw the Dead perform these two songs, pretty much exactly as shown, north of Toronto in 1987 with a six-week old kid, who will turn 31 later this year. I still get goosebumps from their rendition of Buddy Holly’s Not Fade Away)

4 dead, 13 sick from Listeria-in-cantaloupes: The public conversation is lame

I’ve always believed in don’t complain, create.

When I didn’t like the university newspaper I was editor of, I created my own (along with others).

When I didn’t like my higher education, I created my own path to a PhD.

I created my own professoring job (with lots of help from others) and have sorta done my own thing.

So while I’m somewhat beaten with the broken ribs, I still have some spirit.

With Listeria-in-cantaloupe spreading across Australia, I got excited and wrote an op-ed on Monday before lunch.

Amy edited, just like the old days, and I sent it off to the Sydney Morning Herald.

They said they were interested and then … nothing.

Today, with news of a fourth death and more illnesses, I asked again if they were interested.


That’s cool, I have a nostalgia for print and the smell of ink, and I have no doubt why print is vanishing.

That’s one reason why we made our own publishing outlet,, in 2005 because, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” (A. J. Liebling).

Here’s the op-ed. And yes, PR flunkies should be paying me for this advice.

On Sept. 9, 2011, reports first surfaced of an outbreak of Listeria linked to cantaloupe – known as rock melons in Australia — grown in Colorado. Already two were dead and seven others sick.

By the end of the outbreak, 33 people were killed and at least 140 sickened.

On Aug. 17, 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced an outbreak of Salmonella linked to cantaloupe that ultimately killed three people and sickened 270 in 26 states.

In Australia, a fourth death has now been linked to the Listeria-in-rockmelon outbreak, and the number of sick people has risen to 13.

Already, an Australian rockmelon grower is saying “misinformation” about the listeria outbreak will have a negative impact on growers.

Rather than misinformation, there is a lack of information required to regain consumer confidence and trust.

Sadly, the number of dead and sick will probably grow, because Listeria has an incubation period of up to six weeks. The melon you ate five weeks ago could make you sick with listeriosis tomorrow.

This is not misinformation, it’s biology.

Australian media reports that the Listeria contamination is on the rockmelon surface but I have yet to see any verification of that statement. Under a microscope the exterior of a rockmelon looks like a lunar surface of hills and craters, a soft porous skin which microbes can easily cross.

Regardless of how careful a consumer is while cutting rockmelon, bacteria like Listeria, on the outside or inside, are going to be in the final product.

This means everything has to be done to reduce the risk of contamination beginning on the farm.

On a trip to the local Woolies this morning, I found no rockmelon, however some was available in fresh-cut mixed fruit packages. Shouldn’t those also have been pulled? I asked a stocker where the rockmelons were and he said there were none because of the recall. There was no information posted in the shelf-space that previously held rockmelon.

Us mere mortals, those who like rockmelon, have no information on the size of the farm involved in the outbreak, how often water was tested for dangerous bugs, what kind of soil amendments like manure may have been used, whether the melons went into a dump tank of water after harvest to clean them up, whether that water contained chlorine or some other anti-microbial and how often that water was tested, whether there was a rigorous employee handwashing program, whether the crates the melons were packed in were clean, whether melons were  transported at a cool temperature (won’t help with Listeria, it grows at 4 C), and so on.

These are the basic elements of any on-farm food safety program, which my laboratory started developing over 20 years ago for fresh produce in Canada.

These are the questions that need to be answered by any supplier of rockmelon before I would buy again.

The 2011 and 2012 U.S. outbreaks were the result of familiar factors to food safety types: seemingly minor issues synergistically combined to create ideal conditions for Listeria or Salmonella to contaminate, grow and spread on the cantaloupe. There was no overriding factor, and there is no magic solution, other than constant awareness and diligence to the microorganisms that surround us.

Eric Jensen, the fourth-generation produce grower at the centre of the 2011 Listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak told a reporter once the outbreak was “something Mother Nature did. We didn’t have anything to do with it.”

I’ve yet to see divine intervention as a cause of foodborne illness. Instead, illnesses and outbreaks are frighteningly consistent in their underlying causes: a culmination of a small series of mistakes that, over time, results in illness and death. After-the-fact investigations usually conclude, why didn’t this happen earlier, with all the mistakes going on?

So while retailers ask themselves, why did we rely on such lousy food safety assurances, it would bolster consumer confidence if there was any public indication that Australian rockmelon growers had learned anything from past outbreaks, at home and abroad.

(A table of rockmelon-related outbreaks is availabe at In Oct. 2006, 36 Australians were sickened with Salmonella in rockmelon).

Tying a brand or commodity – rockmelon, lettuce, tomatoes, meat —  to the lowest common denominator of government inspections is a recipe for failure. The Pinto automobile also met government standards but that didn’t help much in the court of public opinion.

The best growers, processors and retailers will far exceed minimal government standards, will proactively test to verify their food safety systems are working, will transparently publicize those results and will brag about their excellent food safety by marketing at retail so consumers can actually choose safe food.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety at Kansas State University who publishes the food safety blog, from his home in Brisbane.



Listeria in rockmelon: ‘Misinformation’ is language of deniers

On Sept. 9, 2011, reports first surfaced of an outbreak of Listeria linked to cantaloupe – known as rock melons in Australia — grown in Colorado. Already two were dead and seven others sick.

By the end of the outbreak, 33 people were killed and at least 140 sickened.

On Aug. 17, 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced an outbreak of Salmonella linked to cantaloupe that ultimately killed three people and sickened 270 in 26 states.

In Australia, a third death has now been linked to the Listeria-in-rockmelon outbreak, and the number of sick people has risen to 12.

Already, an Australian rockmelon grower is saying “misinformation” about the listeria outbreak will have a negative impact on growers.

The only misinformation – or fake news – is the lack of information to regain consumer confidence and trust.

Sadly, the number of dead and sick will probably grow, because Listeria has an incubation period of up to six weeks. The melon you ate five weeks ago could make you sick with listeriosis tomorrow.

This is not misinformation, it’s biology.

A table (that needs to be updated) of cantaloupe-or-rockmelon-related outbreaks is available here.

Listeriosis linked to rockmelon in Australia

About a week ago I was chatting with our contractor – we really spend too much time chatting instead of working, and Amy often intervenes – and somehow we got on about the microbiological risks of cantaloupe (or rockmelon as they call it here).

This morning Australians awoke to the news from the NSW Food Authority that two people have died and eight were sick from Listeria-linked to cantaloupe (not the 3 dead and 7 sick reported earlier).

All states and territories are working together to investigate the outbreak and to date they have identified ten cases in elderly patients in NSW (six), Victoria (one) and Queensland (three) with onset of illness notification dates between 17 January and 9 February 2018. All 10 cases consumed rockmelon prior to their illness.

The outbreak has been linked to a grower in Nericon NSW. The company voluntarily ceased production on Friday 23 February 2018, shortly after being notified of a potential link to illness and is working proactively with the Authority to further investigate how any contamination could have occurred in order to get back into production as soon as possible.

Any affected product is being removed from the supply chain, so consumers can be assured rockmelons currently available on shelves are not implicated in this outbreak, but people may already have listeria-infected rockmelons in their homes purchased at an earlier time.

Contaminated water, fertiliser, contact with animals or insufficient cleaning of rockmelons prior to sale are all risk factors for melons becoming contaminated.

The contamination is on the fruit’s skin, not in the flesh.

NSW Health director of communicable diseases Vicki Shepherd said, “If there are levels of listeria on the skin then when you cut it, it can be transferred into the surface where you then eat it.”

Our contractor said today, did you see the news, guess Doug knows a thing.

It’s easy to know a thing if you pay attention. Rockmelons have been repeatedly linked to previous cases of listeria, including an outbreak that killed 33 Americans in 2011.

A table (that needs to be updated) of cantaloupe-or-rockmelon-related outbreaks is available here.

It’ll still be served in hospitals: 3 dead, 7 sick from Listeria-in-cantaloupe in Australia

Listeria monocytogenes has been found on a number of rockmelons from a supplier in New South Wales (NSW, that’s in Australia).

The discovery comes after reports of an outbreak of listeriosis in the Australian state, following an unexpected increase in cases in January and February.

While the link between the farm and the illness cases is not yet conclusive, PMA Australia-New Zealand (PMA A-NZ) said there was sufficient circumstantial evidence to warn at-risk consumers not to consume rockmelon.

“At least 10 people have become infected including three deaths,” PMA A-NZ said in a release. “All cases are people in high risk groups, which includes those who are older, pregnant or have underlying health conditions,”

The NSW Food Authority and NSW Health are currently investigating the outbreak.

Listeriosis is caused by consuming food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes. Listeria is a bacteria that survives and grows on a number of foods including rockmelon, vegetable salads and fruit salads, cold meats, raw seafood, soft cheeses and seed sprouts.


‘Rockmelon nearly killed my unborn son’ (that’s Australian for cantaloupe)

Jane Hansen of The Northern Star reports that when Amelia Liddy-­Sudbury was pregnant with her third child, she was extra careful with her diet, never eating raw fish or soft cheese.

But she didn’t think twice when she bought some pre-cut rockmelon.

“I bought it, cut up and I think that was the source,” the 35-year-old Mosman mum said.

Thirty three weeks into her pregnancy, Mrs Liddy-Sudbury picked up a Listeria infection – one that could have killed her and her baby.

A fortnight later baby Theodore was delivered – five weeks premature – and would need weeks of intravenous antibiotics to stem meningitis.

“It is a deadset miracle he is alive, once you are diagnosed with listeriosis, that’s usually it, the baby is dead,” Mrs Liddy-Sudbury said.

Listeriosis, caused by the food-borne listeria bacteria, kills one out of every five ­unborn babies it infects.

Two weeks ago another pregnant mother tragically lost her baby to listeriosis.

The woman arrived at hospital with abdominal pain, headache and mild fever. Her baby was ­delivered by caesarean section but was stillborn as a result of the ­infection.

Including Mrs Liddy-Sudbury, it was the third ­pregnancy­-­related case this year in NSW, three times the usual rate.

NSW Health director Dr Vicky Sheppeard said the three cases represented a concerning spike.

“Around the country there have been more cases in the past six months as well,” she said.

Health authorities are now urgently reminding pregnant woman to be extra careful with their food choices.

Listeria bacteria is found in a variety of foods, including cold meats, cold cooked chicken, raw fish, soft-serve ice cream, soft cheeses and unpasteurised milk.

Most pregnant women know to avoid these foods, but the bacteria is also found in pre-cut fruit and pre-bagged salads, products that are highly popular in supermarkets and convenience stores.

“Those products are becoming more common and anything that has been cut and left is a risk, you have to wash and peel fruit and salad yourself if pregnant,” Dr Sheppeard said.

Uh, maybe.

There are benefits to having an abundant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.

However, the evidence does lean toward pre-cut anything being a heightened risk.

So if cutting up a whole rockmelon at home, refrigerate immediately.

This makes a mockery of the supermarket chains and fresh produce venders who sell half-sliced melons or cut up produce, usually at room temperature, which in Brisbane, is warmer than most places.

Market food safety at retail and show me the data: Science fairs and rockmelon

I judged my first science fair this morning.

I’ve done lots of stuff with schoolkids over the years – food is a wonderful teaching tool – but this was tough.

cantaloupe.salmonellaThere were 10 of us, judging about 180 projects at one elementary school.

Being the newbie, I got the prep (kindergarten) and grade 1s (grade 2 would have been a conflict of interest).

We had score sheets that will be returned to the students, and I thought, how do I evaluate this, I don’t want to crush the investigative soul of a 6-year-old.

It’s fair game to crush the souls of PhD students and other profs through peer-review, but this felt like peer-review for little kids.

I mainly wrote encouraging things and asked questions.

The things kids think of.

We have an awards thingy later tonight, with the all-Aussie sausage sizzle (yes, I will bring my tip-sensitive digital thermometer and use it, because that is the only data that matters when involving food safety), but I wonder if they’ll serve rockmelon (cantaloupe).

Probably not.

They know who I am, and didn’t serve it at the last school function, after 97 were confirmed sick with Salmonella linked to rockmelon from Red Dirt Farms in the Northern Territories of Australia.

But, as is often, public health seems to take a back seat to biz.

Matt Brann of ABC reports that demand for rockmelons has dived following a salmonella scare earlier this month, which was linked to rockmelons from a farm in the Northern Territory.

(It’s not a scare, it’s an outbreak with lots of sick people).

Christian Bloecker is in the middle of his rockmelon harvest in the Kimberley’s Ord Irrigation Scheme, and said fruit was now being left in the paddock.

“There’s nothing as a farmer that you can really do about it, apart from getting the awareness out there that rockmelons from the Ord are beautiful, fresh and safe to eat,” he said.

Then you’re getting bad advice.

Prove everything you do to produce a safe crop. Look at models in California and Colorado.

Market your food safety at retail.

Some growers are better than others. They should be rewarded.

Soundbites are empty when people are sick.

And as I judged the students this morning, it wasn’t about soundbits and show: it was, show me the data.

97 sick: Australian NT rockmelons test positive for Salmonella

Red Dirt rockmelons in Australia’s Northern Territories, have tested positive for Salmonella, at least 97 people are sick across Australia, two major supermarkets are proclaiming their produce safe – in the absence of any supporting data — so the New South Wales Food Authority decided to tweet this morning, “Beware! Food poisoning can come from any food that isn’t handled correctly.”

Cantaloupe-listeria-outbreakIt’s an animation, stunningly void of content.

And while it’s maybe part of a general campaign, because the majority of the 97 sick with Salmonella-in-rockmelon are based in NSW, maybe the food types have better things to do.

I’m not sure what is the right way to handle cantaloupe is, other than prevention – irrigation water, shit in the soil, dumptank cleanliness (if they are used) and employee sanitation – yet the regulators seem to have come up with their own version of blame-the-consumer (although once it’s cut, refrigerate immediately).

But that’s normal for outbreaks in Australia.

Soon, everyone will go back to sleep.

The only way to have more microbiological safety in foods is to demand it – through media coverage, social media, and marketing food safety, backed up with data.

Instead, all any growers are saying is, it wasn’t us, so please believe us when we tell you it is safe.

Show consumers the data.

Back it up with something other than platitutes.

And don’t fall for the organic, local sustainable, natural and gmo-free nonsense that has nothing to do with the things in food that make people barf.

awkward-yeti-food-poisoning1The Australian Melon Association said the outbreak had now been contained.

“All rockmelons from the affected farm have been removed from supermarket and greengrocer shelves nationwide,” a statement released today said.

“The grower is working with the Northern Territory Health Department to review its operations and will not resupply the market until the all-clear has been given.

Woolworths and Coles have removed all Red Dirt rockmelons from their stores and suspended further orders while health authorities investigate the matter.

A spokesman for Woolworths said only 2.5 per cent of the supermarket’s rockmelon supply nationwide was from the affected farm.

“Customers can continue to purchase alternatively sourced rockmelons from Woolworths with confidence,” he said.

A Coles spokesman said Red Dirt supplied their stores in all states and territories with the exception of Tasmania and Western Australia.

I’m sorry that innocent growers are going to lose sales, but Salmonella and Listeria in rockmelon is nothing new. The best way to manage a crisis is to be prepared.

And don’t depend on associations or government or retailers to do anything other than a meaningless-Bill-Clinton-I-share-your-pain.

They will all still be employed when this moves on.

A table of cantaloupe-related outbreaks is available at It will be updated soon.

Show me the data (and end product testing doesn’t mean much): rockmelon edition

After a week of breakfast meetings in St. Louis at IAFP, I’ve seen my share of sliced cantaloupe (sometimes on ice, sometimes not).

I stick to pineapple, grapefruit and strawberries on the continental buffet tables.

Dealing with the fallout of 90+ cases of Salmonella Hvittingfoss linked to Red Dirt Melons industry members are, according to SBS, putting a public relations press to reduce market impacts.Unknown

Rockmelon growers in northern Australia will begin a campaign pleading with shoppers to buy their produce in light of a widening salmonella outbreak linked to the fruit.

A total of 97 cases of salmonella linked to rockmelon have been identified by NSW Health in the past seven weeks, including 49 in NSW between June 14 and August 1.

Authorities are still unsure of the outbreak’s origin but melon farmers insist it’s safe to eat rockmelons bought after August 2.

“As far as I’m aware, all of the growers who are still producing rockmelon have had microbial tests done on their produce and they have all been clear,” the Australian Melon Association association’s Dianne Fullelove told AAP.