Back in March, cantaloupes from a Honduran company, Agropecuaria Montelibano, were linked to a Salmonella outbreak across the U.S. and in Canada. As of April 2, 2008, some 51 people were affected in the U.S., and nine in Canada. Though there have been no deaths thus far, sixteen people were hospitalized.
This is not the first time that cantaloupes have made the news in this way. In January 2007, approximately 6,104 cartons of cantaloupes were recalled by Dole due to potential health concerns when a third party grower tested positive for Salmonella.More than 700,000 cantaloupes were recalled in 2006 when FDA tests foundSalmonella in imports from Mexico and Costa Rica. Twenty-three more outbreaks occurred between 1984 and 2002, with 1434 people becoming ill, 42 hospitalization and two deaths.
Cantaloupes are particularly susceptible to Salmonella growth because the bacteria can attach itself quickly to the rough, netted rind, forming what is called a “biofilm,” or a mass of microbes that can be extremely resistant to sanitation procedures. The biofilm can then be transferred to the internal fruit of the melon during cutting, increasing the chance of exposure during consumption.
Additionally, mature cantaloupes have a pH of between six and seven, allowing them to serve as excellent hosts for bacteria growth, especially at higher temperatures. Cantaloupes can become contaminated both in the field and during preparation in restaurant or retail kitchens. In fact, cross-contamination was to blame for severalSalmonella outbreaks in the 90’s.
The risk of outbreaks from fresh cut fruits and vegetables has become a growing problem for the food industry over the last two decades. Surface contamination of these products is unavoidable to an extent because the products are grown outdoors and are usually served raw. Another concerning factor is the increase of imported fresh items, as inadequate sanitary practices may be associated with imported foods.
Controlled atmosphere storage has helped reduce bacteria growth somewhat for many fruits and vegetables, as has respiration and ethylene production, especially in cantaloupes. More advanced technologies, like ultra-high-pressure pasteurization and ultraviolet radiation, are being developed at as well, but risks still remain, and retailers need to communicate these risks to their consumers.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has completed the on site component of the investigation of Honduran cantaloupes. Growing fields and packing houses have been investigated, and the collection samples are undergoing analysis at an FDA lab in the U.S.
For now, the FDA is advising consumers who have recently bought cantaloupes to check with their retailer to determine if the fruit came from the specific grower and packer in question. If so, they should throw away the fruit. The FDA is also advising against the purchase or eating of any bruised or damaged cantaloupes from any source. Cut cantaloupes left at room temperature for more than two hours should be discarded because harmful bacteria can multiply rapidly on the surface. For optimal safety, cut cantaloupe should be stored in a clean container at 40 degrees F or below.