Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak: Playing it Safe

2011 has been a banner year for foodborne illness. Sadly, this most current outbreak – involving Listeria monocytogenes, has been linked to 13 deaths in 18 states (see this US Listeria Outbreak graphic from Reuters). The bacteria can affect people up to 2 months after it has been consumed, so there is a chance that we will see even more illnesses in the near future. It’s clear that more stringent standards are needed to keep pathogens out of the food system. As urged by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), “FDA should also move rapidly to release its guidelines and regulations for the production of safe produce, currently due for release in January 2012 and January 2013, respectively.  Congress should fully fund FDA to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, to ensure that outbreaks like this stop breaking records.” (Read the full statement from CSPI Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal.)

While we might have to wait until 2012 for the FDA to issue new regulations, we can take precautions on our own to avoid pathogens while buying and preparing produce. When buying melons look at the labels. According to the FDA, many, but not all of the cantaloupes were labeled – you can see the Jensen Farms stickers here.  And many people don’t think about washing melons before cutting into them, but any bacteria on the outside can easily end up on the flesh that you slice into. If you think that you might have had one of these contaminated melons in your house, please take the time to clean the surfaces that it touched.

You can find detailed information about protecting your family from these bacteria in CSPI’s Listeria 101 : Super Safe Your Kitchen:

Listeria 101 : Super Safe Your Kitchen

Listeria monocytogenes can be deadly to older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems. In addition to being an especially virulent pathogen, Listeria is able to survive and grow at refrigeration temperatures. CSPI has compiled the information below as a guide for preparing produce and sanitizing your kitchen and kitchen utensils and supplies.

Cleaning Fruits and Vegetables

CSPI recommends—prior to peeling, cutting, or eating—washing fruits and vegetables under clean running water (but no dish soap) using a vegetable brush. Melons, in particular, should be left to air dry before preparing. In addition, the use of a diluted bleach solution is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for use on cantaloupes post-harvest. Some restaurants wash the exterior of the melons using a bleach solution followed by a water bath. This diluted bleach solution should be prepared by mixing 1 tablespoon of unscented chlorine bleach in one gallon of water.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Hard Surfaces

Chlorine bleach also works well to kill bacteria on hard surfaces. For bleach to function properly, however, the surface or item to be disinfected must first be clean. After thoroughly washing food preparation surfaces with hot, soapy water, you can sanitize them with a solution of diluted bleach (see preparation instructions above). Let the solution stand on the surfaces for a few minutes, then air or pat dry with clean paper towels. Be sure to sanitize your sink drain too.

Cleaning and Sanitizing Cutting Boards and Utensils

Cutting boards should be washed with hot, soapy water or placed in the dishwasher. Similar to produce and hard surfaces, after thoroughly washing your cutting board, you can sanitize it with the diluted bleach solution. Another food safety precaution is making sure to discard any cutting boards that become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves.

There are several factors involved when sanitizing dishes in the dishwasher. First, the water temperature must be high enough to activate the ingredients in the dishwashing detergent — about 140°F. Secondly, the dishwashing detergent should include chlorine bleach as an ingredient.

  Sanitizing Reusable Grocery Bags, Sponges, Dish Cloths, and Towels

Since sponges are great places for bacteria to grow, they too must be sanitized. You can sanitize sponges by placing the wet sponge in the microwave for one minute. Do not microwave sponges that contain metal. Contaminated dish cloths, towels, and reusable bags should be washed frequently in hot water with chlorine bleach according to product instructions.

To super safe your kitchen, be sure to clean and sanitize all surfaces that might be contaminated. This includes hard surfaces such as counters, sinks, tables, and refrigerator shelves or bins; utensils such as cutting boards, knives, and dishes; and other surfaces such as placemats, reusable grocery bags, dish cloths, towels, and sponges. Even cupboard knobs and handles could use a swipe with sanitizer, as they may have also been contaminated through hand contact.