Summer is gone and fall is here — just as the season of enjoying sweet and juicy cantaloupes is coming to a close. But it has ended in tears in some parts of the country since the mouthwatering fruit shipped from a Colorado farm caused death to about 18 people and illness among more than 100 people in 20 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And as cases of the listeria outbreak rise, food safety experts say now is a good time for a deeper look into the safety practices on farms before produce reaches dinner tables.
No case of Oklahoma-raised cantaloupes has been reported as causing the illness, though the state has lost a life from cantaloupe brought into Oklahoma.
The outbreak was tracked to cantaloupes shipped from Jensen Farms of Granada, Colo. That has made retailers and farmers tight-lipped, as health authorities called on retailers to remove Jensen Farm cantaloupes.
The government reassurance that the fruit was shipped from Jenson Farms in mid-August has helped to calm fears regarding current purchases of cantaloupe from other farms. However for those who had purchased cantaloupes about two weeks before the outbreak, there is perhaps still some concern. The incubation period for listeriosis averages three weeks, but can be as long as 70 days, health experts say. Therefore, the question remains — are cantaloupes safe to eat? How do we ensure there are safe fruits, veggies and other foods in the refrigerator?
Wayne Whitmore, of Whitmore Farms in Coyle, said demand for his cantaloupes and other melons has not been affected by the outbreak because consumers in Oklahoma know the disease did not start in the state.
However, Lynn Brandenberger, who has worked in Oklahoma's horticulture extension since the 1980s, has a message for farmers: Make sure your “farm is not a potential source for listeria contamination,” adding that the effect the outbreak of the illness has on the crop markets is adverse.
And to consumers, he advises: Wash cantaloupes with warm water, with a brush appropriate for cleaning fruits and vegetables.
His colleague at Oklahoma State University, Beth Schaefer Caniglia, an associate professor of environmental sociology, explains that when an outbreak like listeria occurs, even if it's isolated to one farm or region, understandably people tend to avoid taking the risk.
“They tend to think the produce on their grocer's shelf is from that given farm or region,” Caniglia said.
But before such effects hit consumers or retailers, farmers who grow food should be examining how they raise their crops — fresh vegetables, fruits, cereals or meat, he said.
Caniglia said many people may not buy products regarded as risky, regardless of where they come from. And when effects persist, it hurts not only farmers, but the entire food chain.
Safety on farms
Microbiologist Peter Muriana and horticulturist Brandenberger agree that listeria bacteria can originate from any animal source, including dogs and cats, as long as they shed any of these bacteria in their feces and then come in contact with food materials.
The OSU professors explain the problem is much more serious than blaming the cantaloupes from Jensen Farms. Instead, it is about observing food safety practices from where the food is raised to where it is sold and prepared for dinner.
Muriana, a professor with Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Centre at OSU, believes the disease can pop up on any farm or market as long as the conditions that cause it exist.
“It could be anything that is grown outside and consumed without cooking,” Muriana said. Not only cantaloupes, but also fruits and vegetables can equally pick up listeria-like pathogens and transmit them to human beings since they are largely eaten raw.
Lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, pepper, among others, need safety measures as much as strawberries, apples, and peaches.
And fruit and vegetable farmer Whitmore said sometimes it's unavoidable for animals to get in contact with crops. So he urges consumers to “take some level of responsibility by washing fruits well before eating them.”
Not the first time
It is the first time listeria has been reported to have been contracted from cantaloupes, said OSU's Caniglia. But a few years ago there were two large outbreaks of salmonella related to peanut butter. That was the first time for salmonellosis to have been acquired from peanut butter, too, according to the microbiology professor.
And in 2008 the Florida tomato industry was decimated when the salmonella outbreak was first suggested to be associated with Florida tomatoes, then it was found that it was associated with Mexican serrano peppers, recalls microbiologist Muriana. Then there was an outbreak of E. coli with California lettuce and spinach, and now listeria from
OSU's Muriana said all of these organisms can be carried in the intestinal tracts of animals and shed in their feces into the environment and onto food products that are grown outdoors.
Muriana cited birds, which can spread the bacteria through their droppings.
The list of agents seems endless. Muriana also mentions flies and mosquitoes that may land on feces from cattle or other animals before landing on edibles. Contaminated irrigation water is an agent too, he said.
“It is even more significant if products are consumed without cooking because if the bacteria should be present, there is no cooking process to kill them before consumption,” Muriana added.
Brandenberger, OSU's extension horticulturist said, washing cantaloupe with warm water and a brush appropriate for cleaning fruits and vegetables is helpful, though “there are no sure ways to keep listeria from contaminating fresh produce”.
It is a tough call for farmers to observe safety on their farms — and its much more for grocers to get supplies from the people they trust.
Muriana advises groceries to adhere to the “knowing your supplier” slogan, while reminding them to request letters of assurance or certificates of analysis.
Muriana maintains the latest outbreak is an opportunity to change the way business at the farms, farmers markets, groceries, etc., is done to improve food safety.
Farmers markets in particular, he said, lack a “nominal sanitation program or requirement.”
Outbreaks like listeria that cost lives and harm health “could easily change the regulatory stance,” he said.
He cites the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association that established recommendations for its members after outbreaks. They have worked well, Muriana said.
Mike Ssegawa is a Ugandan journalist. He is one of the 14 food security fellows from Kenya and Uganda at Oklahoma State University on a one-month exchange program supported by the U.S. Department of State to study farming in America. The program has seen them visit farms and ranches, and job shadowing at various organizations in Oklahoma to learn skills they can share when they return to their to countries.