One of the most delicious fruits that we enjoy during warm months is cantaloupe. Now, that sweet, juicy fruit has been tainted with a deadly foodborne bacteria – listeria. Jensen Farms in Colorado produced the fruit that so far has caused 72 illnesses, including 13 deaths, and three more deaths yet to be confirmed. Recalled cantaloupes may be labeled “Colorado Grown,” “Distributed by Frontera Produce,” “Jensenfarms.com” or Sweet Rocky Fords.” Some of the recalled cantaloupes are not labeled with a sticker, according to the FDA. More than 300,000 cases of cantaloupes have been shipped out, which comes to between 1.5 million to 4.5 million pieces of fruit.
Listeria is more deadly than other pathogens such as E.coli and salmonella; however those two outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses. Listeria bacteria grow in moist, muddy conditions and are often carried by animals. The listeria found in cantaloupes taken from grocery stores in Colorado and from a victim’s home were grown at Jensen Farms. Most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects; however, those who are affected most often are the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, and often other gastrointestinal symptoms.
Listeria bacteria can cause illness as long as two months after a person has consumed contaminated food, according to USFDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. Therefore, the government is expecting to see more cases reported through the month of October. Listeria bacteria can grow at room temperatures and even refrigerator temperatures. It lingers long after the source of the contamination is gone. The CDC is only reporting lab-confirmed illnesses and deaths. So far, confirmed cases have been reported from eighteen states. The most illnesses were reported in Colorado, but California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming have also reported illnesses and deaths. Thankfully, none of the tainted fruit was shipped overseas.
This serves as a reminder that when we are preparing meals, we should be very careful to wash fruits and vegetables, and disinfect countertops when we finish cutting them up, especially when we have prepared meat for cooking. We should also wash our hands thoroughly. We have gone through several other types of food contamination – peanuts and peanut products, processed meats and unpasteurized milk and cheese. This scare will pass and there will soon be another threat of illness from some unexpected source. Hopefully, others that have not contacted the illness will have heard news reports and get rid of the fruit that is suspected of causing illness.
There is no fool-proof way of protecting consumers from certain bacteria that invade food products. We can only hope that this happens less often and that those who are ill as a result of listeria recover soon.