“OMG. Not cantaloupes again.”
That’s what many consumers are saying about the recent back-to-back news this summer. First it was an all-season recall, then a deadly foodborne illness outbreak, both linked to contaminated cantaloupes.
It doesn’t help that the recall, which was triggered after Listeria was found in a North Carolina farm’s packing shed and on one of its melons, and the outbreak — likely caused by Salmonella found on cantaloupes from an unnamed farm in southwestern Indiana — follow last year’s outbreak caused by Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes from a growing region in Colorado. One of the most deadly outbreaks in U.S. history, it killed more than 30 people and sickened more than 140.
Yet despite these recent events, U.S. consumers continue to buy these popular melons, with California, the big cheese in the industry, shipping out about 10 million pounds of cantaloupes each day.
So the question for many comes down not to “Should I eat cantaloupes?” but rather “What food safety tips can I use when buying and preparing cantaloupes?”
When in Doubt
As a starter, consumers should not buy any cantaloupes from southwestern Indiana, since the farm that may have triggered the outbreak that killed two people in Kentucky and sickened at least 141 people across 20 states still remains unnamed as of August 21.
Of course, that’s easier said than done because many times labels slip off the cantaloupes and also because many people outside of the region don’t know where southwestern Indiana is. Even so, many large retailers said either that they have taken any melons coming from that part of Indiana off their shelves or that they didn’t buy any from that growing area.
The outbreak was announced on Aug. 17.
Bottom line: it all comes down to this advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Meanwhile, Burch Farms in North Carolina — where investigators found Listeria in the packing shed — recalled all of its cantaloupes and honeydew melons earlier this month. It also agreed to extend the recall to its entire growing season.
The cantaloupes and honeydew melons involved in this expanded recall were sold to distributors between June 23 and July 27 in several states, including: FL, GA, IL, KY, MA, MD, ME, MI, NC, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, SC, and VA, VT and WV. FDA said the melons may have been further distributed to retail stores, restaurants and food service facilities in other states.
The agency typically does not post a list of retailers who received recalled products, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture often does. Again, as in the Salmonella outbreak, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
The Big Cheese
Last year’s Listeria outbreak caused by infected cantaloupes ripped through the industry, causing sales to plunge when many consumers decided it wasn’t worth the risk. That fiasco had California growers joining together to come up with a plan to ensure that cantaloupes from the Golden State are being grown, packed and shipped according to strict food-safety standards.
In an unprecedented move, the state’s cantaloupe growers gave a 100 percent thumbs-up to a mandatory plan that requires them to follow government food-safety standards. Going one step further, they also voted in favor of contributing check-off funds levied on their cantaloupes to pay for the cost of California Food and Agriculture Department and USDA inspection audits. All of that even though California has never had a foodborne illness outbreak linked to whole cantaloupes.
“We’ve had buyers calling us asking for our cantaloupes, because our state is recognized for the food-safety standards the growers are following,” said Stephen Patricio, president and CEO of Westside Produce in California and Chairman of the California Cantaloupe Advisory Board.
What’s happening in California is important because the state supplies the nation with 80 percent of its cantaloupes during its main growing season and 60 percent annually.
“California cantaloupes go everywhere,” said Patricio.
Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to keep labels on cantaloupes due to the netting on the rind. Patricio said that consumers should ask the retailers where the cantaloupes they’re selling were grown.
“It’s a law that the data must be available,” he said. “Don’t take ‘I don’t know’ for an answer. Ask them to go in the back (where fruit comes into the store) and look at the boxes to see where they’re from.”
This past winter when an international conference focusing on food safety and cantaloupes was held in San Diego, many cantaloupe raisers in growing districts across the nation saw the wisdom of adopting a plan similar to California’s.
But strangely enough, said Patricio, the two districts that indicated that the plan didn’t apply to them were the Southeastern and the Midwestern districts, the very two districts where the recent outbreak and recall occurred.
What Is It With Cantaloupes?
Trevor Suslow, Extension research specialist in food safety at UC Davis, is quick to say that the recent outbreak and recall aren’t “a cantaloupe problem” but rather “a handling problem.”
That’s true for produce in general, he told Food Safety News, pointing out that it’s the growing, packing, storing, shipping and handling practices that can contaminate fruit and vegetables with pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.
And even though the food safety challenges are greater with cantaloupe due to the netting on the rind — where pathogens can lodge — and the fact that they’re grown on the ground, Suslow said that cantaloupes are not inherently risky.
Westside Produce’s Patricio even goes so far as to call the cantaloupe rind “God’s container” because it rejects pathogens, thus keeping them out of the melons as long as the rind is intact.
A New Wash
Suslow and his fellow food safety scientists have been working to come up with additional guidance to consumers about what they can do to avoid being infected with a foodborne illness from cantaloupe.
As part of that, they’ve been looking at washes that people can use. For the most part, said Suslow, washes don’t tend to do much to kill pathogens.
But when they tested BioSafe Systems‘ SaniDate Ready to Use Fruit and Vegetable Wash — an organic product developed about 2 years ago for use in the home — they found that it did well, with a 95 to 99 percent kill rate of pathogens.
“It’s something I would recommend,” Suslow said. “It’s a bit more effective than just washing the cantaloupes with water.”
The product is sold online and at garden stores.
SaniDate RTU is the only fruit and vegetable wash product registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to a company document about the product.
Speaking specifically about cantaloupes, Suslow’s advice is to spray the SaniDate RTU on a melon and let it set for about 2 minutes. And don’t rinse it off.
According to information from BioSafe, washing all fruits and vegetables before eating is very important. However, just washing with water may not be enough anymore.
“Unlike other products found in local stores,” says the company about SaniDate RTU, “our product not only washes the produce but is also active in killing pathogens.” The company also points out that because SaniDate RTU uses peroxide chemistry, it does not produce any residue, so it does not require any final rinse.
The company also recommends using SaniDate RTU even with produce from homegrown gardens because “you never know what plants have been exposed to.”
The product is available in a 32 fl. oz. spray bottle and can be found online and in local garden centers. Prices vary widely according to where it’s being sold.
Frank Pennington, a technical representative for BioSafe, told Food Safety News that the product also extends shelf life because it kills molds and yeasts in addition to pathogens.
More Food Safety Tips
Last year during the Listeria outbreak, Food Safety News provided some food safety tips about how to choose, store and prepare cantaloupes. The following is a re-run of that advice, with some additional tips thrown in.
Because cantaloupes are grown in close contact with the ground, they can occasionally become contaminated with bacteria from the soil, water or animals, according to a University of California publication about safe handling of cantaloupes. In addition, they can be contaminated by human contact during or after harvest.
Suslow, one of the authors of the publication, said that consumers should spend some time looking at the cantaloupes in the stores or other places where they’re sold and select those free of blemishes, cuts, sunken areas or mold growth. Keep in mind cantaloupes usually have an area that’s a lighter color than the rest of the melon because that’s where the melon has been resting on the ground while it’s been growing.
“Choose the sound, intact ones,” Suslow said.
Suslow and Patricio both warn that any nicks or cuts in the rind or any mold on the rind or at the blossom end can be a pathway that pathogens can use to get into the flesh of the melon.
Once you’ve brought the melon home, don’t wash it until you’re ready to eat it, Suslow said. If it’s not quite ripe, it’s fine to keep it on the kitchen counter for a day or two, but, again, don’t wash it then or before you put it into the refrigerator. The reason for that, he said, is that cantaloupes are a “desert fruit” and need to be dry. Wetting them and putting them into the refrigerator can trigger mold.
It’s also important to remember to wash your hands before and after handling cantaloupe and to always use clean equipment, utensils, and cutting surfaces. If you’ve kept the cantaloupe on the counter before putting it in the refrigerator, clean the counter once you transfer the melon to the refrigerator.
When you put the melon into the refrigerator, don’t let it come into contact with other foods. That will ensure that foods such as meat and poultry won’t contaminate it — or if there’s bacteria on the surface of the melon, that the bacteria won’t contaminate any of the food in your refrigerator.
The best temperature to store a ripe cantaloupe is 36 to 41 degrees F (2.2 to 5 degrees C). To prevent the melon from drying out, the best humidity level is 95 to 100 percent. For that reason, the best place to put a cantaloupe is in the refrigerator’s crisper.
When purchased from a grocery store, a cantaloupe will keep in the refrigerator for about 5 days, depending on how ripe it was when it was put there. Cantaloupes fresh from the field or garden will last from 5 to 15 days, depending on the variety and growing conditions. The riper the melon, the shorter the keeping time.
Once you’re ready to eat the melon, wash it under running water, using a clean vegetable brush. That’s important, said Suslow, because the spaces within the netted rind on the melon protect the bacteria and make it harder to remove any that might be there.
After washing the melon, blot it with paper towels to remove excess water. Then put the melon on a clean surface — one that hasn’t come into contact with meat or poultry or other foods that could cause cross-contamination — and cut off the stem end about 3/4 to 1 inch from the end, using a clean kitchen knife to do this. (It’s recommended that you don’t do this in the kitchen sink.)
Place the melon on a clean cutting board, plate or other clean surface with the cut end facing down.
Using a clean knife, cut the melon from the blossom end to the stem end. Follow this by washing the knife with clean running water and setting it aside.
Gently scrape out the seeds with a clean spoon and cut the melon into slices or whatever is desired.
Don’t use dish soap or detergent, neither of which is recommended or approved for washing fruits and vegetables. Because cantaloupes are so porous, they can absorb detergent residues.
Suslow said that even if you wash the rind, you should avoid arranging the slices in a way that allows the rind to touch the melon’s edible flesh, especially if you’re serving people susceptible to food poisoning such as young children, older people, pregnant women and those with weak immune systems.
Purdue microbiologist Haley Oliver goes one step further, advising consumers to entirely remove the rind from the flesh once the melon has been sliced.
Melon that isn’t eaten should be peeled, covered and refrigerated. But toss any that’s been kept out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours, or 1 hour when temperatures are over 90 degrees F.
“Proper refrigeration stops the growth of Salmonella and E. coli,” Oliver said.
All of these food safety practices should also be followed when using melons grown in a garden.
“It all fits together,” said Suslow. “You do as much as possible to stop contamination from being introduced.”
Drying and canning cantaloupe is not recommended. In fact, because cantaloupes have low acid levels, canning them can support the growth of the bacterium that causes botulism, a potentially fatal type of food poisoning.
In some cases, already-cut cantaloupe from the store or served in a restaurant, for example, has been linked to foodborne illnesses such as E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella.
According to the UC Davis publication, storing cut melons at room temperature or other warm conditions such as in a hot car or at a picnic can lead to rapid growth of harmful bacteria on the melon’s flesh.
If you buy cut or diced cantaloupe, make sure it’s properly chilled, preferably in the refrigerated display case. And if cut or diced melons are displayed on ice, they should also be surrounded by ice. In addition, the surface container or wrap should be cold to the touch, according to the same UC Davis publication.
The optimal storage temperature for ripe cut cantaloupe is 36 to 41 degrees Fahrenheit.© Food Safety News