The FDA is currently investigating a multi-state outbreak of listeriosis brought on by infected whole cantaloupes dating back to mid-September. As of this writing, 100 people are currently ill, 18 deaths have been reported, and it has affected 20 states so far. These numbers may increase because there can be a two month lapse between eating the contaminated food and developing listeriosis.
With it’s thick, heavy rind protecting it, canteloupe might not strike most people as being susceptible to contamination. The same could be said about other melons and maybe some winter squashes as well. The fact is, this thick covering is exactly the problem. If you look at the outside of a canteloupe, it almost appears to be covered with netting. It has more nooks and crannies than a Thomas’s english muffin, and plenty of hiding places for all kinds of contaminants.
Most people do not wash their cantaloupe, and it doesn’t occur to them that as they are slicing into it, they are dragging all the bacterias and chemicals lurking on the outside to the inside on the edge of their knife. I am willing to bet that this practice largely contributed to the recent outbreak.
This isn’t meant to scare you away from buying canteloupe. Rather, I think this is an important reminder as to how important it is to THOROUGHLY clean your produce before you eat it or serve it to your loved ones.
Some DO’s and DON’Ts:
DO soak your produce for a few minutes before you begin to wash it. This helps dislodge anything trapped in crevices. Opinions vary as to exactly what you should soak produce in. My research is turning up that proper handling with plain water is as effective as the commercial food soaks available. NEVER use chemicals (bleach) or soaps.
DON’T soak different food items together. If one food type is contaminated, it will contaminate the rest.
DO continue to wash following the soaking under a stream of running water. Let the chemicals and bacterias rinse away from the food and down the drain.
DON’T let water spray from the food you are cleaning onto already cleaned foods or counter tops. I have changed my habit of washing in one side of the sink and draining the clean veggies in a colander in the other for this reason. I put the draining colander on a plate a distance away on the counter now.
DO store washed produce in bags in the fridge and not place them directly on the shelves or in drawers. Refrigerator shelves see a lot of action and usually don’t get cleaned as often as they should. Try the green storage bags – they really work and are reusable.
DON’T store different foods together in the same bag. Differents types of foods have different rates of deterioration and as one spoils it can infect the others with bacterias even in the cold temperature of your refrigerator.
DON’T put washed produce back into the same bags you brought it home from the store in. All of the same bad stuff you just washed off your produce is still inside of these bags.
DO use a veggie scrub brush on produce with firm skin or rinds. Use your spray nozzle on foods that are more fragile or textured, such as grapes and broccoli.
DON’T forget to clean your scrub brush, sink, colander, counters and cutting board thoroughly when you are through.
This recent listeriosis outbreak will also drive home another point: locally grown produce is safer. It is less likely to become contaminated just due to the fact that the products have been handled less through sidestepping part of the system known as the “Food Production Chain”.
The Food Production Chain has four steps:
- Production – The growth of the plants on farms
- Processing -Turning the plants into a “food product” – cleaning and sorting, and/or trimming, slicing, and bagging.
- Distribution – The transportation of the food from the farm to the consumer. The food can make many trips such as from a supplier to a warehouse to a distribution facility to the individual supermarket to the restaurant kitchen. (Don’t forget that each stop takes time during which the nutritional value of the food is decreasing.)
- Preparation – Where foods are put together in the form of meals in a restaurant, cafeteria or at home.
Your food might make multiple stops on its way from the farm to your table. Each of the stops increases the potential for contamination. Any number of things, from foul irrigation water to unclean storage bins and trucks to unwashed human hands can be present, and under the right conditions, set the contamination wheels in motion.The proximity of your local farmers eliminates the need for several of these stops. It also helps those in your community.
Let’s try to make something positive come from this latest food-related nightmare. Let’s try to shop smarter and be more cautious in our own handling of food.
Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.