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Growers, health officials in high gear with cantaloupe outbreak

Growers and retailers met in “crisis talks” this week as Australian public health authorities urged consumers to throw away cantaloupe because of an ongoing Listeria outbreak.

The situation is reminiscent of the deadly 2011 listeriosis outbreak in the United States that was traced to whole cantaloupes. It spanned 28 states, sickened at least 147, and killed 35. Ultimately investigators found that dirty water on the packing shed floor at a Colorado cantaloupe farm was the source of the Listeria monocytogenes.

Two people have died in the Australian outbreak that is linked to a grower in Nericon, New South Wales, according to a notice from the state’s Food Authority. Ten people across three states are known to have been infected, including the two who died. All 10 ate cantaloupe before becoming sick. They became ill between Jan. 17 and Feb. 9.

In addition to the 10 cases already linked to cantaloupe, or rock melon as they are known in Australia, another five cases confirmed this year are under investigation to determine the source of the Listeria.

The unnamed cantaloupe grower stopped production a week ago and is working with authorities to find the source of the Listeria monocytogenes, according to the notice posted Wednesday.

“Any affected product is being removed from the supply chain, so consumers can be assured rockmelons currently available on shelves are not implicated in this outbreak,” the New South Wales Food Authority. Six of the outbreak cases are in New South Wales, with one reported in Victoria and four in Queensland.

Specific sources of foodborne Listeria infection are often difficult to determine because it can take up to 70 days for symptoms to develop.

The NSW Food Authority notice did not state how it was determined what grower had shipped the implicated cantaloupe.

As their investigation continues, state officials in New South Wales are reiterating their previously existing warnings for those at high risk of developing infections from Listeria monocytogenes bacteria — including recommendations to avoid pre-cut fruits and vegetables as well as bagged and packaged salads.

High risk groups include children less than 5, elderly people, pregnant women and other individuals with weak or compromised immune systems. The Food Authority recommends those groups also avoid:

  • Pre-cooked cold chicken, cold delicatessen meats, and pâté;
  • Raw seafood and uncooked smoked seafood;
  • Unpasteurized milk or milk products, and soft cheeses such as brie, camembert, ricotta;
  • Raw mushrooms; and
  • Raw sprouts.

Industry reacts, reassures public
Although only one grower was implicated as of mid-week, the entire Australian cantaloupe industry is feeling the impact of the outbreak. A similar situation developed in the United States in 2011 when cantaloupe sales across the country dropped.

The growers Down Under are already in damage control mode, according to multiple media reports. Members of the Australian Melon Association are reviewing packing practices and materials from a pathogen control perspective.

Association representatives met in “crisis talks” Thursday with retailers across the country, according to the Australian Associated Press.

After the meeting, the association’s industry development manager, Dianne Fullelove, told the news syndicate that growers currently supplying rockmelon were asked to produce documentation that their fruit is not contaminated.

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