Local growers, retailers try to reassure cantaloupe eaters after listeria outbreak

Maggie Schaum of Perry Hall, shopping at R&B Fruits and Veggies in the Pennsylvania Dutch Market, said she was afraid to buy cantaloupes after hearing about the recent listeria outbreak.
Maggie Schaum of Perry Hall, shopping at R&B Fruits and Veggies in the Pennsylvania Dutch Market, said she was afraid to buy cantaloupes after hearing about the recent listeria outbreak. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

Local melon growers and retailers are trying to reassure consumers after listeria linked to cantaloupe from a Colorado farm killed 13 people across the country, including one in Maryland — the deadliest foodborne outbreak in more than a decade.

While federal public health officials have warned of the potential for more deaths, state officials are reaching out to retailers to ensure they're aware of the recall, and the produce industry is working to contain the crisis. Meanwhile, some consumers are putting off cantaloupe purchases.

"I don't take no chances," said Maggie Schaum of Perry Hall while shopping Thursday at R&B Fruits and Veggies in the Pennsylvania Dutch Market in Cockeysville. The 66-year-old retiree opted to buy a couple of ears of sweet corn instead.

"I'm not buying — not one," she said of the cantaloupes on sale.

The listeria outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Colorado. Dr. Clifford Mitchell, assistant director for environmental health and food protection at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said no Maryland stores have reported selling affected cantaloupes, which officials say should be thrown out. And if consumers aren't sure where melons are from, officials said, they shouldn't eat them.

Each recall can cost the food industry millions of dollars, according to the Delaware-based Produce Manufacturing Association. Recalls can affect the entire supply chain, including truckers, grocery stores and farmers.

"This is very significant," said Kathy Means, a vice president with the association, about the cantaloupe recall. "It's not unusual for people to have concerns. We want to get the word out that only one farm was affected."

She added that the industry takes concerns seriously. "One death is too many, and we don't want anybody dying from our products."

Industry officials said any impact on Maryland growers is likely to be minimal because the national recall came at the end of the season for local cantaloupe. In addition, heavy rains ruined many of the crops here.

Mandy Richardson, retail manager at Richardson Farms in White Marsh, said her crop was ruined and those melons for sale at her family's farm are from California. She makes a point of informing customers that the farm has sought a voluntary U.S. Department of Agriculture certification of good agricultural practices, such as testing rising water and staying on a cleaning schedule.

"Normally whenever there is something in the news, they do avoid [that item] even if there's no outbreak here," she said.

Richardson added that typically, customers substitute produce for the recalled product — as Schaum did.

When there was an E. coli outbreak in fresh spinach in 2006, Richardson Farm customers went for kale and other greens instead. Nationally, that outbreak, which began in California, sickened 200, killed three and cost industry millions. It was quickly followed by another outbreak originally attributed to green onions but later linked to iceberg lettuce.

Richardson said that only a few customers have asked about the origin of her cantaloupes. Moreover, she said, the melon is not as popular as during summer months. "Most people have moved on to fall items like apples," she said.

Despite the recent outbreak, overall risk to consumers from food is low in the United States, according to national and local officials. Yet the nation is periodically gripped by potentially deadly foodborne illnesses that taint the industry.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that there were 1,034 outbreaks in 2008, the latest year available. The outbreaks included 23,152 cases of illness, 1,276 hospitalizations and 22 deaths.

Salmonella was responsible for the most deaths, 13, followed by listeria and E. coli, which were each responsible for three deaths.

In recent years, growers have responded with stepped-up safety programs. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has trained at 250 farms seeking certifications of good agricultural practices.

State public health officials are investigating one local death. A man from Central Maryland has died, though officials can't explain how he came in contact with the deadly strain of listeria associated with the outbreak.

Mitchell, with the state health department, said officials have been calling grocery stores to ensure they know about the recall.

He said food safety has advanced in recent years with technology and better handling procedures. But the complex food distribution network that puts a diverse range of products on grocery shelves can also make it difficult to immediately trace the source of outbreaks.

He said there may be more people sickened from this outbreak because listeria grows slowly and can live even on refrigerated foods.

This outbreak is unusual because listeria isn't typically associated with fruits and vegetables. It's usually found on deli meats, hot dogs and Mexican-style soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk. Exceptions include an outbreak involving sprouts in 2009 and one with fresh-cut celery in 2010.

"We've made significant improvements in food handling and safety, and we are continuously looking at ways of improving food safety here in the state and across country," Mitchell said. "We take food safety very seriously because everyone consumes food."

At Brad's Produce in Churchville, owner Brad Milton said customers looking for cantaloupes clearly haven't been scared off by the listeria outbreak. But, he added, he was out of the melon.

R&B Fruits and Veggies manager Ben Lapp said he has been able to reassure customers who have asked questions about the melons on sale. His cantaloupes also are from California.

Grocery chains too are reassuring those customers still interested in cantaloupe, including Safeway and Giant Food.

"We have been answering questions in our stores or through our consumer affairs team and reassuring customers that our cantaloupes are unaffected by the recall," said Jamie Miller, spokesman for Giant. "We are in the process of posting signs in our produce departments to reinforce this message."




Should I eat that cantaloupe?

Consumers, especially older adults, persons with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, should not eat Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, where the listeria outbreak has been traced.

If some of the cantaloupe has been eaten without anyone becoming ill, dispose of the rest of the cantaloupe immediately. Listeria bacteria can grow in the cantaloupe at room and refrigerator temperatures.

Cantaloupes that didn't come from Jensen Farms are safe to eat. If consumers are uncertain about the source of a cantaloupe for purchase, they should ask the grocery store. A cantaloupe purchased from an unknown source should be discarded.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention