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Healthy Aging

Important Facts About Cantaloupes and Listeria

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 10/18/2011
Last Updated: 08/10/2012

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I was so happy a few weeks ago to find good-looking cantaloupes on the store shelves that I bought two, eager to cut them up and pretend that it was still summer.

I did enjoy the bright orangish succulent fruit for a few days until the news hit: people were actually dying from eating these melons. As of October 11, the CDC received reports of 23 deaths out of the 116 listeria-infected people (the deadly type of food poisoning is known as listeriosis). This is, unfortunately, probably not the end of the deadly outbreak: listeria has a long incubation period, making it likely that more people will become ill in the coming months.

I listened carefully. I learned that the infected melons came from Colorado, with labels reading "Colorado Grown," "Distributed by Frontera Produce," "Jensenfarms.com" or "Sweet Rocky Fords." I ran to check the label on my cantaloupes and was relieved to see that they were grown in California. But the nagging feeling still persisted. Each time I bit into a piece, I wondered if it was worth the gamble. And that old adage—"When in doubt…"—kept echoing in my head.

I finally listened. I threw it out. And then, I wiped down my refrigerator shelves with soap and water since I learned that listeria-contaminated foods could contaminate other foods stored nearby. Just in case.

I probably wasted some money and did this needlessly, since I knew that I was likely safe. I also knew it was unlikely that these cantaloupes would cause listeriosis because of these facts:

  • People with weakened immune systems, the elderly and those with immune disorders are most likely to become sick if infected. These include newborns and pregnant women (who are about 20 more times more likely than healthy people to develop severe infection. Pregnant women, if infected, can miscarry or suffer a stillbirth).
  • It's rare that adults with healthy, intact immune systems get ill. (Did you know that can have a positive effect on your immune system and ?
  • Most of the people who died were over age 60; at least two were in their 90s.

How would you know if you had a case of food poisoning? The illness usually begins with diarrhea or other intestinal symptoms, leading to fever and muscle aches. You might feel as if you have a mild case of the flu. Depending on the person, it's also possible to get a headache, stiff neck, mental confusion, loss of balance and even convulsions. The usual incubation period is thought to be anywhere between one and three weeks, but symptoms can arise within three days of eating the infected food—or it can be as long as two months after you become infected.

Here's some good advice, compliments of the CDC, for avoiding listeriosis in general:

  • Rinse raw produce (such as fruits and veggies) thoroughly under running tap water before eating, cutting or cooking. Even if you plan to remove the peel, wash it first. Scrub firm produce (like melons and cucumbers) with a clean produce brush.
  • Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel.
  • Thoroughly cook raw meat and poultry.
  • Heat hot dogs, deli meats and cold cuts until they are steaming hot prior to serving.
  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk and do not eat fresh soft cheeses that are made with unpasteurized milk.
  • Keep your refrigerator at or below 40°F and your freezer at or below 0°F.
  • Clean all spills in your refrigerator right away, especially juices from hot dog and lunchmeat packages, raw meat and raw poultry. Use hot water and liquid soap, then rinse.

Comments

I'm a big fruit eater, but I've been paranoid about buying cantaloupes...even now, weeks after the outbreak was announced. If you've ever had even a touch of food poisoining you wouldn't want to get it again, much less this strain of life-threatening listeria!

I think your tip to wash all fruit with a skin is really important. I use soap and a brush for all melons, apples, etc.

Thanks a lot, it's very good information, I'm with you, Sheryl, in case of doubt better be safe that sorry.

So I ate cantaloup right before I read this. No. Lie.

I haven't bought one since this happened either. You always think of food poisoning happening from improperly prepared or stored food - not fresh produce that is completely contained in its own skin! Very scary.

I'm inclined to think you did the right thing by throwing it out. Who needs the nervous stomach and worry? Thanks for the tips.

Did not know the symptoms. Thanks. Off to clean my fridge.

Hope you gave the fridge a good scrubbing, Alexandra!~

Here's what I want to know: 1. Is listeriosis the same as food poisoning? and 2. What made those CO cantaloupes contaminated?

I hear about this kind of outbreak and am reminded that having our food provided by big ag puts a greater number of people at risk when there IS a problem. We need to start supporting local growers and bring our food sources closer to home.

Kris, Listeria is one type (of many types) of food poisoning, among them salmonella and botulism. And I do agree that it is important to support local growers. Hopefully all growers will be aware of proper hygienic measures. Theories range from contaminated irrigation water to the fact that cantaloupe's rough skin can easily trap and hold bacteria. Scary, I know.

I'm so sad that this outbreak was traced back to a farm in my home state (Colorado). So many farming families make their living on these cantaloupes, and I worry about the effect this will have on their livelihoods.

I don't each much of these melons, though, because I seem to have developed a bit of an allergy to them. My throat gets a little sore after I eat cantaloupe.

I do have a friend who got listeria (from cold cuts) while she was pregnant, which was really scary. Certainly ... take no chances.

Did not know that listeria had a long incubation period. That's unusual for so-called food poisoning, no?

From my research, I've found that with the more common types of food poisoning, symptoms are apparent within 2-6 hours of eating the food.
LIsteria is different, in that symptoms can take much longer to emerge.

I'm not surprised that more optimistic people stay healthy! I've had food poisoning (in West Africa) that was one of the worst things I ever lived through. Unlike Nancy, I forget, sometimes, to wash fruit. Thanks for all the tips Sheryl! I hope you COMPOSTED the cantaloupe!

I'm sure, Jennifer, after experiencing food poisoning once, you are super-aware of doing everything you can to NOT let that happen again. And thanks for the compost reminder...

I might be in the minority, but seriously, I never thought of washing the cantaloupes before cutting into them. Been paranoid about it myself. My fridge needs a serious cleaning and disinfecting.

Well, LL, hopefully now you've learned about washing your melons. To me it's little effort for big payoff!

Cantaloupes are being sold in Colorado so I am not sure what the story is about that, but I am not buying them.

I know that the cantaloupes that were grown at the farm mentioned in my post were all pulled from the shelves, so it's possible they're still being sold, but from another farm that is not associated with the outbreak.

Thanks for the food safety tips, Sheryl - a good find and great reminder.

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