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Listeria outbreak raises questions about farmers' methods

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.
BY MIKE SSEGAWA Published: October 7, 2011

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.

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