In the week since the New South Wales Food Authority connected “a spike in Salmonella Hvittingfoss cases” to Red Dirt Melons in Australia’s Northern Territories, there’s been precious little reported about how the rockmelons were actually contaminated. Government and industry comments since the outbreak was announced on Aug. 3 have focused on cautioning consumers, a strategy that is not working for everyone. Doug Powell, the former Kansas State University food safety professor who now writes from Australia, for the popular Barfblog, says “the regulators seem to have come up with their own version of ‘blame the consumer.’ ” At least 97 people, across New South Wales and throughout Australia, have been sickened by rockmelons, known as cantaloupe in North America, contaminated with Salmonella Hvittingfoss Salmonella Hvittingfoss is a rare strain; one of about 2,000 strains of Salmonella. Most U.S. states might only see it once or twice a year. With 97 people testing positive for such a rare strain at roughly the same time, it’s pretty much a certainty that an outbreak is involved. “The only way to have more microbiological safety in foods is to demand it — through media coverage, social media, and marketing food safety, backed up with data,” Powell writes. “Instead, all any growers are saying is, it wasn’t us, so please believe us when we tell you it is safe.” He’s challenged Aussie melon growers to show consumers some data. “Back it up with something other than platitudes,” Powell continues. “And don’t fall for the organic, local sustainable, natural and GMO-free nonsense that has nothing to do with the things that make people barf.” It’s been a costly week for Aussie melon growers as consumers reacted to news about the outbreak and held back melon purchases at peak season. Two supermarkets, Woolworths and Coles, have said they’ve removed all the Red Dirt rockmelons from their produce departments and ceased any further orders from the grower until it is cleared by health authorities. Australia has about 300 melon growers who produce about 217,000 tons of fresh product annually, both for domestic use and for export to New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The Australian Melon Growers Association says all rockmelons from Red Dirt Melons have been removed from both supermarket and greengrocer shelves nationwide. “The grower is working with the Northern Territory Health Department to review its operations and will not resupply the market until the all clear has been given,” according to an association statement. It claims all other growers on the continent “have re-tested their produce and confirmed their fruit is safe to eat.” Queensland grower Sib Rapisarda, whose family runs Australia’s largest melon farm, says growers are “committed to producing the best quality fruit through sustainable farming practices.” “The industry has best practice guidelines in place to prevent on-farm contamination including regular testing of fruit, soil and water, and we are audited by a range of independent third party certifiers,” says Rapisarda. Australians who have uneaten rockmelons and are unsure of the origins are being told to “dispose of it straight away.” Positive tests for Salmonella Hvittingfoss were returned to the New South Wales Food Authority on Aug. 2. Red Dirt then undertook a “trade level recall of their product.” Food safety precautions to reduce the risk of picking up pathogens from melons include:
- always purchase undamaged and unbruised rockmelon and if it is pre-sliced ensure it is refrigerated;
- discard sliced or peeled rockmelon that has been left at room temperature for more than two hours;
- wash hands thoroughly with warm soapy water before and after handling rockmelon; and
- use clean chopping boards and utensils when preparing rockmelon and thoroughly wash them in hot soapy water after cutting or peeling.
The last major outbreak involving cantaloupe in the United States came in 2012 when strains of Salmonella Typhimurium and Newport originating at Chamberlain Farms in Owensville, IN, sickened 261 people in 24 states. There were 94 hospitalizations and three deaths connected to the outbreak. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)