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The Cantaloupe Recall and Food Safety Basics

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cantaloupe_close.jpgFederal authorities say the source of listeria that’s killed at least 16 people and sickened dozens more is a Colorado farm that specializes in growing cantaloupe.

More than 300,000 cases of the fruit, grown by Jensen Farms, were shipped prior to recall. Do the math: Each case could hold up to 15 melons, so we’re talking anywhere from 1.5 million to 4.5 million pieces of fruit.

What’s scary about this case is that listeria is not typically found on the melon — or any produce, for that matter. Look back at large-scale outbreaks involving fruits and vegetables in the past and you find the responsible contaminant to be E. coli or any member of the salmonella bacteria family. Indeed, a review of records shows that cantaloupe has been linked more often to salmonella-related illnesses.

Another unsettling aspect is that it’s impossible to know just how deeply into the food distribution system the cantaloupe penetrated. While the Food and Drug Administration notes that the recalled cantaloupes may be labeled "Colorado Grown,” “Distributed by Frontera Produce," “Jensenfarms.com” or “Sweet Rocky Fords,” not all of the suspect fruit may be stickered. The farm itself says many pieces may have been resold through distribution houses to states not listed in the warning area.

Whatever the cause of the contamination (water, animals, etc.), retailers can turn this into an important educational lesson — not only for their customers, but store associates who may be cutting fruit in-house. The FDA makes the following suggestions:

• Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.

• All produce should be thoroughly washed before eating. This includes produce grown conventionally or organically at home, or produce that is purchased from a grocery store or farmer's market. Wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting or cooking.

• Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first.

• Washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes is not recommended.

• Scrub firm produce, such as melons and cucumbers, with a clean produce brush.

• Drying produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel may further reduce bacteria that may be present.

The second-from-last suggestion is one that many people forget. Just because you don’t eat the rind, a knife slicing through it can contaminate the edible portions inside. As with anything in life, there are no guarantees that you’re protected if you follow the rules, but in the world of foodborne illness, the rules are a big help.

[Photo credit: Daina Dajevskis]

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