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Cantaloupe Outbreak: Some Retailers Identified, Others Not

Wal Mart, Schnucks, Meijer and Marsh remove cantaloupes from shelves.

This article was updated on Sept. 4, 2012 to include additional information provided by a Wal Mart spokeswoman.

One week following the announcement of the Salmonella outbreak tied to cantaloupes grown by Chamberlain Farms in southwestern Indiana, some consumers are still expressing confusion over whether or not their local supermarkets carried — or are still carrying — the affected melons.

Several retailers have stepped forward to comment on the outbreak, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet provided any retailer-specific information about Chamberlain’s supply chain. In all likelihood, more retailers who sold contaminated cantaloupes have not yet been identified, said microbiologist and eFoodAlert author Phyllis Entis.

On Thursday, Midwest grocer Schnucks announced that they had been selling Indiana cantaloupes — including cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farms — until August 16, when public health officials gave them warning to pull their cantaloupes grown in southwestern Indiana.

Earlier, grocers Meijer and Marsh announced that they had removed Indiana-grown cantaloupes from shelves following the news of the outbreak. Whether or not they specifically sold Chamberlain Farms cantaloupes remains unclear.

At least three victims are known to have purchased cantaloupes from Wal Mart stores in Michigan and Mississippi, though the source of those cantaloupes has not been specified.

Update (9/4/2012): No Wal Mart stores in Michigan or Mississippi carried cantaloupes from Chamberlain Farms, a Wal Mart spokeswoman told Food Safety News.

“As soon as we were made aware of these reports, we conducted a detailed trace back investigation to determine the exact source of the cantaloupes purchased by our customers in our stores in Michigan and Mississippi,” the spokeswoman said. “Our records clearly show that the cantaloupes we sold in Michigan and Mississippi did not come from farm located in Owensville, Indiana, which the FDA has implicated as a source of the outbreak.”

One supplier did provide Wal Mart stores in other states with Chamberlain Farms cantaloupes. Chamberlain cantaloupes accounted for less than 0.5 percent of Wal Mart’s total cantaloupe stock, though they could not confirm where stores with those cantaloupes were located.

Wal Mart told Bloomberg that it began instructing managers at each store to discard any cantaloupe grown in southwestern Indiana on the day of the outbreak’s announcement. No illnesses have been linked to cantaloupes purchased at a Wal Mart.

Entis has collected all available information on the outbreak — including information on other retailers — on a page at eFoodAlert.

Entis is publishing retailer information that the FDA won’t because of the differences in their approach: She tracks announcements on retailer web pages and trawls news reports for information, publishing the latest tidbits as she uncovers them.

Sometimes Entis just calls health departments to see what they’ll tell her — that’s how she learned that one of the two Mississippi victims bought cantaloupe at Wal Mart. (The other victim, along with several victims from other states, did not report eating cantaloupe, leading officials to believe the infections may come from multiple sources.)

By comparison, the FDA starts by identifying the source of the outbreak and fans out along the supply chain from there, though the agency won’t itself point out retailers that carried contaminated projects – that’s for the retailers to announce on their own. Asked why that is, Entis said the FDA views supply-chain information as proprietary.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know yet,” Entis told Food Safety News. “We don’t know everywhere the cantaloupes were sold. We don’t know the wholesalers. We don’t know if any went into cut melon products or things like fruit salads. None of that information is available yet. It’s possible that it was only whole melons, but there’s no way to know. We don’t even know which states in the Wal Mart system might have sourced Indiana cantaloupes.”

Other retailers commenting on the outbreak include Publix and Lucky Supermarkets, who both say they source their cantaloupes from California. California is the largest cantaloupe-producing state and has not been associated with a cantaloupe outbreak.

Kroger, Valu Market and Paul’s Fruit Market stores in states around Indiana have also informed customers that they were not selling affected cantaloupes.

The two victims in Michigan are being represented in a law suit by food safety law firm Marler Clark, which underwrites Food Safety News.

Thus far, the outbreak has killed two people in Kentucky and sickened 178 in 21 states. At least 62 people have been hospitalized.

Following a request from public health, Chamberlain stopped shipping its melons for the remainder of the growing season, including its watermelons, which have not been connected to any illnesses. A Kentucky state lab test on two of the farm’s cantaloupes found they had Salmonella bacteria that genetically matched samples taken from victims in Kentucky.

Speaking to USA Today, Chamberlain Farms owner Tim Chamberlain said he has been growing melons in southwestern Indiana for 30 years without an outbreak. He’s waiting on further testing from public health laboratories, and says he does not believe his farm is the source of the contamination, but he does not dispute what authorities have said.

Chamberlain, who started growing melons as a teenager, built his own melon business from the soil up.

“I’ve never had a job anywhere else,” he told the paper.

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