Killer cantaloupes could kill the cantaloupe business, and thus something must be done to ensure the safety of these fruits.
After Colorado cantaloupes were found to be at the center of the nation’s most deadly foodborne illness outbreak in a century last year, California growers led an intense nationwide campaign to improve practices, especially those involving harvest and post-harvest methods.
After the deadly 2011 Listeria outbreak, which sickened at least 147 and killed 33, most cantaloupe growers around the nation were paying attention to see what improvements needed to be made to keep the fruit free of pathogens. However, it soon came to light that some still had food safety issues.
North Carolina’s Burch Farms, which supplied Hannaford Supermarkets, discovered on July 28 that cantaloupe it shipped July 15 were contaminated with Listeria.
The original recall included 580 crates of whole Athena cantaloupes, but it was expanded to include the company’s entire growing season for both cantaloupes and honeydew melons.
Credit for taking almost 200,000 Listeria-contaminated cantaloupes off the shelves went to the New York unit of USDA’s Microbiological Data Program, a produce testing program that the Obama Administration and Congress have since killed at the behest of the fresh produce industry.
No illnesses followed Burch’s timely recall.
The other problem, however, was a deadly two-strain Salmonella outbreak that was ultimately linked to Chamberlain Farms in Indiana.
At least 261 people were sickened in the 24-state outbreak that saw 228 infected with Salmonella Typhimurium and 33 with Salmonella Newport. The outbreak linked to Chamberlain Farms killed three people and put 94 into hospitals.
As of a month ago, however, grower Tim Chamberlain was not taking responsibility for any of it. Through his lawyer, he said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s inspection of his facilities had not turned out anything linking his cantaloupes to the Salmonella outbreak.
FDA said its environmental samples found the two outbreak strains of Salmonella – both of which were indistinguishable from the strains that sickened victims – on the farm. And the Kentucky Department of Health, investigating the deaths, found one of the strains on a Chamberlain cantaloupe collected from a retail store.
In addition, the FDA inspector found “poor sanitary conditions,” including standing water, debris and a buildup of rust and other material on packing equipment.
And, it is not just a matter of a couple of bad years. According to the Center for Produce Safety at the University of California Davis, cantaloupes have been associated with 36 outbreaks and pathogen-based recalls since 1990.
Before the deadly 2011 Listeria outbreak, Salmonella contamination was often associated with imported melons, was the main concern of cantaloupe growers. Listeria, with a mortality rate reaching as high as 40 percent among the elderly and pregnant women, is a game changer for cantaloupe growers.
It has the industry looking for a silver bullet.
On Jan. 1 at UC Davis, Professor Trevor Suslow will begin a two-year research project into the “practical validation of surface pasteurization of netted melons.”
In other words, just as there are pasteurized eggs today, there might be pasteurized cantaloupes tomorrow. Suslow, a longtime expert on cantaloupe growing, says preventative controls are the best way to combat the burden the melons put on consumers and public health.
His study, based on previous laboratory findings, will test the effectiveness of hot water pasteurization of cantaloupes and other netted rind melons.
The California Cantaloupe Advisory Board’s Steve Patricio says it’s important to remember that any “kill step” is a “point in time.”
“However, good bacteria and bad bacteria are both killed,” Patricio says. “I have been following this line of research for nearly 10 years. Growing crops in season where they are meant to be grown (not where genetics can be adjusted to allow them to grow) will also allow safer food.”
The Center for Produce Safety has awarded $245,000 to the cantaloupe pasteurization study.