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Salmonella and Melons: Haven’t We Seen This Before?

Posted in Outbreaks & Recalls,Salmonella on June 11, 2018

We’ve all seen Salmonella outbreaks before—raw eggs, undercooked meats, improperly handled seafood—but how many cases come to mind when we consider any sort of fruit or vegetable? While recent news about the romaine lettuce recall might immediately come to mind, details about previous times when melons were the cause of a food poisoning outbreak might be mostly faint. But it has actually happened before!

As previously posted, the U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that sixty cases if identical infections have been discovered throughout Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. Six people in Illinois alone fell ill on Friday and federal health officials are currently investigating the issue. So far there have been no fatalities, but thirty-one individuals have been hospitalized. The cause of these infections is due to contaminated pre-cut melons in grocery stores, particularly Walmart stores in the five affected states.

“The Illinois Department of Public Health is urging people not to eat pre-cut melon purchased from any Walmart store in Illinois, or any of the other affected states, at this time,” IDPH Director, Nirav D. Shah, M.D, said. “If you have recently purchased pre-cut melon from Walmart, throw it out. If you have recently eaten pre-cut melon from a Walmart store and experience diarrhea, fever, and cramps, contact your health advisor.”

Situations like these, however surprising, have occurred on multiple occasions!

A History of Fruit Outbreaks

Back in 2011, a Salmonella outbreak brought a total of twenty people down with an infection across multiple states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington. The CDC collaborated with public health officials in many states in order to help identify the most likely source of the outbreak. Investigators used DNA analysis of Salmonella bacteria gathered through diagnostic tests to accurately diagnose cases that might also be part of the outbreak.

While the age of ill patients varied widely from one year old to sixty-eight years old (with a median age of 13 years old), sixty-five percent of the patients were male. While no deaths occurred with this specific outbreak, three cases were hospitalized.

According to the CDC, “Collaborative investigative efforts of state, local and federal public health and regulatory agencies linked this outbreak to eating cantaloupe. Twelve of 16 ill people reported eating cantaloupe in the week before illness. Eleven of these 12 ill people ate cantaloupes purchased at eight different locations of a national warehouse club. Information gathered with patient permission from membership card records helped determine that ill persons purchased cantaloupes sourced from a single farm. Product traceback information indicated these cantaloupes were harvested from single farm in Guatemala. FDA worked closely with CDC, authorities in states where illnesses have occurred and the firms involved to investigate the source of the contamination and to identify the likely source of this outbreak.”

Consumers and food preparers were warned that they should wash their hands, their tools, and their fruits before slicing into any melons. Additionally, people where warned to refrigerate their cantaloupes after cutting them.

Another similar case occurred in late 2017. Fresh fruits trays sold within specific grocery stores in Washington and Oregon were soon indicated as a source of a Salmonella outbreak lasting from October to December. The fruit trays incorporated pre-cut watermelon, cantaloupe, and other fruit mixes. All pre-cut melons sold within the dates of October 25th and December 1st were deemed as contaminated, and authorities urged consumers in both effected states not to eat any of the fruit purchased between those dates. Ultimately, sixteen individuals in Washington and two in Oregon came down with Salmonella poisoning after consuming the contaminated produce. Every one of the sick patients had consumed the identified fruits: pre-cut and pre-packaged melons.

Grocery stores targeted with the contaminated products pulled all pre-cut watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew from their shelves in order to help contain the outbreak. Jeffry Temple, spokesman for Fred Meyer—which was the genesis of the Salmonella outbreak—issued a statement: “Our highest priority is our customer’s safety and the safety of our food. We will continue to work closely with state and federal health officials on their investigation to determine the source of this outbreak.”

But Fruit?

While most people assume that Salmonella is only contained within raw eggs, it’s actually a common foodborne pathogen that can sometimes infect fruit products—especially those that are pre-cut and improperly handled. While normally those infected with Salmonella can recover their optimal health without hospitalization or treatment, others can come down with illnesses to severe to be left unattended by professionals.

Cut fruit tends to have a far higher risk of being contaminated because the peels, rinds, and skins of fruits provide a naturally protective layer against bacteria. Once fruit is cut, the disease-preventing armor stops being able to protect bacteria from infesting the flesh o the fruit. Bruises, nicks, and cuts to a fruits protective layer makes the fruit vulnerable to invading pathogens, ultimately allowing them to enter into areas that cannot be cleaned off. Washing an already-sliced melon doesn’t work out to well!

That’s why experts strongly recommend washing any and all fruits before slicing them. Even if the skin, rind, or peel is not being consumed, it carries a risk of infection. Bacteria that rests on the outside of the fruit can easily be washed off, but once it’s allowed on the inside of the fruit, there’s really no way to remove it. While we’d all like to think that the fruits we purchase from our local grocery stores are fresh, clean, and delicious, the fact of the matter is that things just aren’t that clean.

Think of a watermelon. It begins its journey by sitting in a pile of dirt. Even at this stage, it is exposed to many forms of bacteria and pathogens, some of which could possibly cause contamination such as animal feces and molds. Once the watermelon is picked, it’s in the hands of workers who have been out in the field all day, working, sweating, and touching millions of other objects—regardless of cleanliness. Then the melon goes off to a distributor, where it is touched by more hands, machinery, and an untold number of bacteria. Then, on to the grocery store—more hands, more germs. It may look clean when you pick it up and place it in your car…but let’s be realistic. It’s only certainly clean after you give it a good washing.

Ultimately, Salmonella poisoning outbreaks tend to occur in response to poor food-handling techniques. While this can be blamed on farmers, distributors, or grocers, the fact remains that you also have to do your best to handle your own food properly—regardless of where it’s been before. Don’t just assume someone else washed your fruits and vegetables; you wash them. And don’t assume that the pre-cut fruits have all been treated fairly!

By: Abbey Ryan, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)