Despite listeria outbreak, cantaloupes safe to eat if…

Worst listeria outbreak in more than a decade shines harsh light on safety of cantaloupes. They're safe to eat, scientists say, if consumers take steps to prevent spread of pathogens like listeria.

Ed Andrieski/AP
An operator of a fruit and vegetable stand near Denver holds a California-grown cantaloupe for sale at her business last week. Federal and state officials have isolated a deadly outbreak of listeria to one cantaloupe farm near Holly, Colo., so all other cantaloupe appears unaffected. Still, consumers should take special precautions when handling cantaloupe, scientists say.

The worst food outbreak in more than a decade is bringing new focus on the safety of cantaloupes.

Cantaloupes from an eastern Colorado farm, infected with a pathogen known as listeria, have been linked to at least 13 fatalities and 59 illnesses in 18 states, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Tuesday. Three additional deaths are also under investigation.

That’s more fatalities than any food outbreak since 1998, when 21 people died after listeria was found in hot dogs.

The current outbreak has been traced to a single source, the production fields of Jensen Farms in Granada, Colo. So the rest of America’s cantaloupe crop is, by all accounts, unaffected by the problem and safe as ever.

But cantaloupe – indeed, all cut melon, such as watermelons and honeydews – are considered by the federal government to be “potentially hazardous.” That's because, among other things, the melons grow on the ground, so they’re susceptible to bacteria in the soil or in water runoff after a rain.

Cantaloupes are particularly susceptible to contamination because of their rough skin, which can hold bacteria, says Michele Morrone, director of environmental studies at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. “If bacteria settles in that skin, you cut through the cantaloupe and you bring the bacteria into the melon.”

That’s why environmental scientists, the federal government, and cantaloupe growers themselves all recommend that consumers wash the outside of the melon before cutting it. Use a brush, if necessary.

Consumers should also follow common food-preparation procedures when handling cut melon, the CDC recommends. These include washing your hands before and after handling the fruit, promptly refrigerating it at no more than 40 degrees F., and throwing it away if it has been left at room temperature for more than four hours.

But the key additional step is washing the rind when the melon is still whole, especially with cantaloupe.

“Everyone needs to wash the melons before they cut them,” Professor Morrone says.

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