We are once again experiencing a listeria scare this summer involving melons. Last year, Jensen Farms out of Colorado was linked to a listeria outbreak that resulted in 30 deaths and many more sickened. Now, a recall is underway due to listeria bacteria being found on cantaloupe and honeydew from Burch Farms out of North Carolina. So what is one to do? Should you stop eating melons altogether? I will be developing this page as a resource on how to handle this situation. My goal is for people to not just freak out and run away from all melons, but to be informed on what they are buying and what they can do to be "safer".
Get Rid of the Recalled Melons
I recommend following the recall. If you find that you have a melon grown by Burch Farms in your fridge just throw it out. There is no reason to put yourself in danger of getting sick to save a melon that only costs a couple dollars. If you see melons from that farm that are still on store shelves alert the produce manager at the store immediately.
How Do Melons Get Infected?
There could be several sources of potential infection, but I am going to focus today on water. Contaminated water that is used to clean melons can be a source of listeria. However not all melons are clean before being shipped. In fact most aren't. According to a USA Today report from last year, 85% of cantaloupes are growin in the arid deserts of California and Arizona. In those climates they use drip irrigation. These keeps the melons clean as they don't have mud sprayed on them. But in more wet climates like in the South where the latest threat is coming from they do have the cleans the melons before shipping. It's when they are being cleaned together that the listeria bacteria can travel from melon to melon.
Are Organic Melons Safer from Listeria Outbreaks?
Just because something is organic does not mean it's safe from these outbreaks. Listeria bacteria can be found in manure. Organic farmers use manure, maybe even more so than conventional farmers. So don't just think that you are going to buy organic and never be at risk for a problem.
Won't Just Cleaning the Melons Make Them Save?
Cleaning the outside of a melon won't hurt, but it is still no guarantee. While melons like honeydew have a smooth skin, the cantaloupes's rough skin makes it harder to clean, so you would have to get into every nook and cranny. If you were to set your melon on the same surface you had it on before cleaning, then cut it on that surface all your cleaning would be for nothing. Or if the bacteria ended up on your knife you also would be putting into the melon. Even if you were able to remove any potentially harmful bacteria from the outside it is still possible that it has already entered the inside of the melon before you bring it home.
Should I Stop Eating Melons Altogether?
The odds of you getting sick and dying from eating a tainted melon are still pretty low. It's much more likely you are going to die in a car accident on your way home from buying melons. I don't think you should stop eating melons. But if you are concerned about it, then take some steps. Buy melons at the local farmer's market or only ones from dry climates like Arizona or California. You could also consider growing melons at home, where you can oversee the entire process from seed to table yourself. With enough sunlight and water you should be able to produce a good crop and just enjoy them when they are in season at your own backyard.
More Info on Food Safety
If you want to learn more about food safety & sources here are a couple resources to check out: