I got up at 2 a.m. Friday for a 3 a.m. chat session after a video presentation about social media and food safety at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s 15th annual PulseNet Update Meeting/seventh annual OutbreakNet Conference in Long Beach, Calif., only to be told the gene jockeys and epidemiologists had broken the Internet and couldn’t get a phone line.
No worries, instead I chatted in hushed tones (trying not to wake the family) with JoNel Aleccia of msnbc about listeria and cantaloupe.
Cantaloupe is particularly susceptible to contamination, ranking among the top five kinds of commonly tainted produce, along with spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and green onions, said Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University and publisher of a food safety blog.
“What makes cantaloupe stand out is a couple of things. There’s the structure of the fruit. Think about a honeydew melon. They’ve smooth and very hard. Cantaloupe is very soft,” Powell told msnbc.com.
With its bumpy rind and succulent flesh, cantaloupe can easily become tainted at any point from field to table, Powell said. Bacteria on the skin are hard to remove, and they can be spread to the edible portion of the melon when a knife slices through. There’s some evidence that the porous skin might actually allow tainted water to permeate the flesh, he added.
It’s not yet clear how the Jensen Farms cantaloupes were contaminated. FDA officials have found listeria in lab samples taken from equipment and fruit at the farm’s packing facility. But the bacteria can be present in soil or water, so the root cause has not yet been determined, said Doug Karas, a spokesman.
Powell also said many outbreaks are confirmed only through interviews with ill people that reveal a common food source.. In the case of the new listeria outbreak, a health warning and recall was issued a week before experts actually detected the bacteria, possibly halting more infections and death.
“Can you imagine the outcry if Colorado had waited an extra week to go public in the current outbreak?”