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On the heels of an E. coli outbreak caused by contaminated romaine lettuce, another food poisoning scare involving fresh produce has come to light.
At least 60 people have been sickened and 31 hospitalized after eating prepackaged, presliced melon contaminated with salmonella, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first announced on June 8.
Unlike the E.coli outbreak linked to romaine lettuce this past spring, investigators have identified the source of the contaminated melon. The packages of melon were shipped to just eight states—Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio—with illnesses reported in five states.
An Indianapolis-based packager and distributor, Caito Foods, voluntarily recalled presliced watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, and fruit mixes containing one or all three of these types of melon packaged in clear, plastic clamshell containers.
The packages were shipped to 10 major retailers—Costco, Jay C, Kroger, Payless, Owen’s, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon—between April 17 and June 7, 2018. The latest reported illness was on May 28.
Nevertheless, it’s still unclear exactly how the contamination happened in the first place. “And even when a company recalls the product, it can still be confusing for consumers to tell if they are affected,” says Jean Halloran, director of food-policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports.
That’s why CR’s food-safety experts put this Q&A together to help you understand the steps you need to take.
Q. If I don’t live in one of the eight states, do I need to avoid precut melon?
No. The outbreak appears to be limited to this producer and the states and retailers listed above.
Q. How do I know the outbreak won’t spread to more states, as it did with romaine lettuce?
Food-safety investigators were able to link the likely source of the contamination to one processing plant. “Multiple types of melon were involved, and all were traced back to this one facility,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food-safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “I wouldn’t be surprised if further investigation found that there was contamination in one common area, slicer, or room at the plant.”
Additionally, he says, the potentially contaminated melon was only shipped to a handful of states in the Midwest. In the case of the E. coli outbreak linked to romaine, the contamination affected lettuce grown in a region (Yuma, Ariz.) that supplies the entire country.
Q. How do I find out whether the melon I bought is contaminated?
The package may be labeled “Distributed by Caito Foods,” but you might not always see that on labeling. “The melon was sold under several brands, and only in some cases does the Caito Foods name appear,” Rogers says.
You can find a list of recalled products at the Food and Drug Administration’s website. Check the UPC code on the package. If the number on your package of melon matches any from the list of recalled products, throw it away or return it to the store for a refund.
If you have questions about the melon you purchased, you can also call the hotline set up by Caito Foods at 844-467-7278, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET, Monday through Friday, and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET, Saturday and Sunday.
“Caito Foods takes food safety seriously and is committed to following strict procedures regarding product handling and the cleaning and maintenance of our facilities to deliver the high-quality products our customers have come to expect for more than 50 years,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement.
The company is no longer shipping packages of melon from the affected facility, and it has notified retailers of the recall so they can pull the product from their shelves.
Once cut, melon has a short shelf life—about three to five days. The last shipment from Caito Foods was on June 7, so it’s possible that a tainted container is still in your fridge. And some people do freeze melon, especially watermelon, to extend the shelf life, a spokesperson for the FDA said.
If you shop in one of the affected states and you can’t remember where you bought the melon in your fridge, or you can’t find the packaging to check the UPC code, CR’s food-safety experts recommend that you toss the fruit.
Q. Are restaurants affected by this outbreak?
No restaurants have been named in the outbreak, and the affected facility didn’t supply melon to restaurants. Still, it’s possible that some restaurants might purchase melon from a grocery store, according to the FDA spokesperson.
If you’re dining out in one of the eight states and want to order melon, ask where it came from. If the staff doesn’t know, it’s probably best to skip it.
Q. Are whole melons safe to eat?
As of now, yes. While the FDA is still investigating this current outbreak, nothing suggests that whole melons sold in supermarkets are involved.
Still, you should take food-safety precautions when preparing any produce—especially cantaloupe, because its rough rind can trap salmonella and some other types of harmful bacteria, according to the FDA. One of the worst foodborne disease outbreaks on record involved cantaloupe contaminated with listeria in 2011, in which 143 people were hospitalized and 33 died.
“Any time you chop or cut into a food, you increase the risk of contamination,” Rogers says. “If you’re cutting a melon, dirt or bacteria or other germs from the rind can be transferred to the knives, prep surfaces, or to the inside of the fruit.”
The FDA suggests that when choosing a melon from a store, pick one with an intact rind that hasn’t been dented or bruised. Rinse the outside of the melon with water, and use a vegetable brush to scrub the surface before slicing through it (though experts are still mixed on whether rinsing effectively gets rid of bacteria). Clean your knife and cutting board before scooping out the cantaloupe and cutting into the flesh.
Wash your hands with soap and warm water between touching the rind and the flesh, and after slicing, keep melon refrigerated to retard bacterial growth.
Q. Is precut produce more likely to be contaminated than what you slice yourself?
Precut produce is a time-saver, says Rogers, but it may be more likely to be contaminated with bacteria. When you cut into produce, you increase the risk of transferring bacteria. In commercial facilities, many fruits and vegetables are processed in one place, creating opportunities for cross contamination. You have no way to know—nor do you have control over—whether the prep area, surfaces, and utensils were sanitized correctly. Because of this, says Rogers, it’s safer to buy your own melon, wash the surface, and cut it yourself.
If you do buy precut, bagged, or packaged produce, the FDA advises choosing unbruised products that are refrigerated or packed in ice. Keep produce away from raw meat, poultry, or seafood in your shopping cart, bag, and refrigerator to avoid cross contamination of bacteria.
Q. How dangerous is salmonella poisoning?
Salmonella is the second most common cause of food poisoning in the U.S. About 400 people die each year from it.
This current outbreak appears to be quite severe. Of the 47 people the CDC has detailed information on, 31 (or 66 percent) were hospitalized. (The agency doesn’t yet know whether the other 13 people who have been sickened were hospitalized.) “We usually expect to see around a 20 percent hospitalization rate for salmonella, so 66 percent is indeed, very high,” a spokesperson for the CDC said. “The investigation is ongoing to learn more about why this may be.”
While most people recover from a salmonella infection on their own within four to seven days, some people can develop diarrhea so severe they need to be hospitalized. And if the bacteria spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream, it can cause a life-threatening infection known as sepsis, which requires prompt treatment with antibiotics.
Vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, are more likely to have severe symptoms or have serious complications from a salmonella infection or other foodborne illness.
In fact, says a CDC spokesperson, one reason this outbreak may be responsible for sending more people to hospitals than usual is because most of those affected are older than 60, “and older adults are more likely to have a severe salmonella infection.”
Q. How do I know whether I have salmonella—and what should I do?
Most people will get diarrhea, a fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after they eat the tainted food, with symptoms typically lasting four to seven days. Vomiting can occur but isn’t a classic symptom.
If you are sick, the most important thing is to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, juice, broth, or other caffeine-free, nonalcoholic fluids.
Call your doctor if you have diarrhea that lasts for more than three days, if the diarrhea is bloody, or if you have a fever of 101.5° F or higher.
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