Deadly Cantaloupes Have Colorado Scientists Searching for Clues

Colorado scientists are working to pinpoint how melons linked to the deadliest U.S. outbreak of food-borne illness since 1998 became contaminated.

“Bacteria on the outside can be internalized, or get inside the cantaloupe if they’re not washed properly,” Lawrence Goodridge, an associate professor of food microbiology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, said in an interview yesterday. “It can be very complicated to figure out, and in many cases the actual reason for the contamination is not found.”

Goodridge is studying samples from the melon-processing line at Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado -- where federal officials traced the outbreak -- including washing pans, conveyor belts and floor drains.

At least 13 people have died from listeria infections linked to cantaloupes, with 72 people in 18 states ill with listeriosis traced to the tainted fruit, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sept. 27 in a statement. More illnesses are expected because people can become sick as long as two months after eating the contaminated produce, Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said yesterday.

Colorado is the nation’s fifth-largest producer of cantaloupe, with about 2,200 acres valued at about $8 million harvested in 2010, according to the state’s Department of Agriculture.

Melon Warning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Sept. 14 warned consumers not to eat melons from Colorado’s Rocky Ford region shipped by Jensen Farms. The FDA is also investigating how the melons became contaminated, looking at animal intrusions in fields and growing, harvesting, packing and rinsing practices.

Jensen Farms, about 228 miles (367 kilometers) southeast of Denver, voluntarily recalled its 2011 cantaloupe harvest in September. More than 300,000 cases of melons representing an estimated 40 percent of the Rocky Ford region’s output were recalled, said Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for the farm.

As federal and local officials searched for the cause, farmers sought to quash the idea that all melons grown in the region are suspect. “Rocky Ford cantaloupes (Grown Only in Rocky Ford, Colorado) are not infected with listeria,” Smith Farms says in large letters on its website.

Part of Culture

Cantaloupe is integral to the culture of the 150-mile-long Arkansas Valley, where many families are third- and fourth-generation melon farmers and high-school sports teams call themselves the “Meloneers.”

“At the football game, instead of a kid running around in a lion suit, or a bear suit, they have a fighting melon,” said Mike Bartolo, a vegetable crop specialist with Colorado State University who grew up in the region and is based in Rocky Ford.

The region’s produce is also part of popular culture. W.C. Fields quipped that bald men have a “head shaped like a Rocky Ford cantaloupe,” and Lucille Ball once asked for one to be delivered to her dressing room, according to the Rocky Ford Melon Co.’s website.

The melon contamination follows the August recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey produced by Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. in the second-biggest U.S. meat recall. The outbreaks have drawn increased attention to the safety of the U.S. food supply. The salmonella outbreak traced to the meat killed one person and sickened more than 70.

Preventing Illness

“It’s urgent that we move to a system that prevents people from getting sick rather than chasing down problems after we have deaths and illnesses,” Erik Olson, the director of food programs for the Pew Health Group in Washington, said yesterday in an interview.

Food poisoning strikes an estimated 48 million people in the U.S. each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the CDC. Food-borne illnesses cost the nation’s economy about $152 billion annually in health-care expenses and lost productivity, according to a 2010 report by Georgetown University’s Produce Safety Project in Washington.

Funding for food safety is under pressure from congressional budget cuts. Full funding is necessary to improve inspections, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. New rules to make sure food doesn’t become contaminated and that tainted food is handled properly are needed to limit illnesses, she said in an e-mail Sept. 27.

“The cantaloupes have been recalled, but they may have left behind the deadly pathogen in consumers’ homes and refrigerators,” she said.

The FDA already has guidelines for melons. Rules due to be made final in 2013 would require, rather than suggest, procedures for companies. Current melon guidelines “set an excellent foundation for the rules when they are issued,” FDA spokesman Doug Karas said in an e-mail.

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