The CDC has traced a recent listeriosis outbreak affecting 55 people in 14 states to contaminated cantaloupes. What is listeriosis, and how risky are cantaloupes?
Listeriosis is a serious infection typically caused by eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium found in soil and water. Animals can carry the bacterium without any signs of illness, thus contaminating meat and dairy products. The bacterium has also been found in raw foods such as vegetables and fruit, and processed products such as lunch meat, hot dogs, deli meats, and cheese. Once Listeria gets into a food processing plant, it can stick around for years.
So how exactly do cantaloupes become contaminated? Cantaloupes are ranked among the top five most commonly tainted produce (alongside spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, and green onions). The fruit’s bumpy rind and soft flesh make it susceptible to contamination at any point from harvesting to serving. Listeria lingers on the fruit’s rind and can be spread to the edible flesh during cutting. And unlike most bacteria, Listeria can grow and multiply when refrigerated or at room temperature.
But don’t swear off cantaloupe just yet! It’s an excellent source of potassium and vitamins A and C. While the CDC recommends caution for high-risk groups (the very young, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems), you can take comfort in the fact that serious illness is less likely for the average person. To date, most of the 55 confirmed cases of Listeria infection in the current outbreak have been in people over the age 60.
Another lesson here is that playing it safe with your produce means washing it thoroughly! And please don’t forget to check in with your doctor if you suspect you’ve eaten something unsavory.