Canteloupe Scare Leads to New Protections

An ongoing outbreak of listeria-contaminated cantaloupe is now reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in more than a decade. As of this past Friday, the outbreak has sickened 84 people and killed at least 17. Though no official determination has been made on how the cantaloupe became contaminated, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has traced the outbreak to a single grower: Jensen Farms in Colorado. Jensen’s cantaloupes were shipped to at least 28 states between July 29 and September 10 and were sold in large retail stores, including Safeway and Walmart. On September 14, Jensen recalled their entire 2011 harvest of Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes, which amounted to more than 300,000 cases, or between 1.5 million and 4.5 million whole melons. Jensen cantaloupes already sold may be labeled “Colorado Grown,” ”Distributed by Frontera Produce,” ”” or “Sweet Rocky Fords,” but not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the FDA said.

“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. “But if you can’t confirm it’s not Jensen Farms, then it’s best to throw it out.”

Cantaloupes are particularly prone to listeria bacteria, which is typically carried by animals, because their rough skin traps and holds bacteria. And it’s now thought that the long journey melons take from farm to plate plays a significant role in how these outbreaks happen and spread. Fruit goes first to a packing house, then a distributor, then a processor and then to a retail distribution center before arriving on store shelves. “Increasingly with agribusiness you have limited producers of any given food, so a breakdown in a facility or plant or in a large field crop operation exposes thousands because of the way the food is distributed,” says Dr. Brian Currie, an infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, in a CBS News story.

And unlike many pathogens, listeria can linger long after the source of the contamination is discarded—the CDC advises people who may have had contaminated cantaloupe in their kitchens to clean and sanitize any refrigerator shelves, cutting boards and countertops it may have touched.

Those sickened by the pathogen are usually the elderly (the CDC stated that the median age for listeria infection is 78) and pregnant women, who have a 20% greater chance of being infected. And because listeria infections can take anywhere from a few weeks to two months to develop, additional cases of illness or death from contaminated cantaloupe could be reported through October and possibly longer.

2011 has seen a fair share of food recalls. In August, Cargill Inc. recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey possibly contaminated with salmonella, making the recall the third largest ever, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). And more outbreaks continue to ignite consumer fears. This past Thursday, Tyson Foods recalled 130,000 pounds of ground beef for potential E. coli contamination and True Leaf Farms in California recalled 90 cartons of chopped and shredded romaine lettuce after the FDA found one sample tested positive for listeria.

In response, the FDA announced this month that they will strengthen their efforts to “prevent, detect, investigate, respond to and learn from incidents and outbreak” with their new Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network. The CORE Network will be made up of epidemiologists, microbiologists, environmental health specialists, emergency coordinators, and risk communications specialists working full time to investigate and respond to food-borne illness scares. Though originating in the FDA, CORE will work with the CDC and the USDA on the effort.

“USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and FDA share the common goal to make our nation’s food supply the safest in the world,” said Dr. David Goldman, acting chief medical officer at the USDA and FSIS Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Health Science. “The CORE Network focuses on learning from outbreaks and applying those lessons to help make this goal a reality.”

The essential goals of CORE include more in-depth surveillance, streamlined decision making and quicker response time if an outbreak occurs, seamless coordination and enhanced communication, and ultimately, increased public health protection leading to effective preventive food safety practices and policies. “The CORE Network builds on the best practices FDA has already implemented in its outbreak response efforts,” said Mike Taylor, FDA deputy commissioner of foods. “And, in keeping with the reforms of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, CORE activities will learn from outbreaks to develop preventive systems, in an effort to reduce them from happening in the future.”

In the coming weeks and months, as CORE begins operations, the FDA will be adding updates and information on how this new team and this new approach are progressing on their website, For the present cantaloupe outbreak, the FDA and CDC are working closely together to investigate “various parameters—environmental in particular—that may have contributed to the contamination and spread.”

“We’ll be looking at potential animal intrusion. We’ll be looking at water quality. We’ll be looking at the growing practices, the harvesting practice,” said Dr. Sherri McGarry, senior advisor to the FDA’s Office of Foods. “And then, most importantly, we’re going to take these lessons learned, share that with our partners and industries, CDC and the states, and what we want to do is we want to really prevent this from happening in the future.”