Use caution when eating cantaloupe

The following is a News Release from the LSU AgCenter:

Some people may be wondering if they should ever eat cantaloupe again. But LSU AgCenter food scientist Marlene Janes says she certainly plans to, although she recommends taking precautions.

The likelihood of buying one of the tainted cantaloupes from Colorado that have killed and sickened people across the country keeps getting more remote. But just to be sure and give yourself some peace of mind, Janes says to first of all inspect cantaloupe for any cuts or abrasions. Probably some sort of puncture in a Colorado cantaloupe caused the food poisoning crisis to begin with, she said.

"Listeria is found everywhere in the soil and in the environment," said Janes, who is expert in food-borne pathogens and has studied Listeria. Although most Listeria does not cause illness, Listeria monocytogenes, is deadly. And that's what managed to find its way into the Colorado cantaloupe.

"Generally, we don't see Listeria in cantaloupe," Janes said.

It will take weeks and even months before the investigation turns up exactly what happened during the processing and transport of the tainted cantaloupes, she said.

"These foods go through so many hands," she said.

For those people wanting to continue to consume them, Janes says buy good-looking cantaloupe with no abrasions, and eat them as soon as possible after you get home.

She says thoroughly wash the surface with a little vinegar, which is acetic acid and an effective killer of some harmful bacteria.

Listeria, unlike most food-borne pathogens, can grow at refrigerator temperatures. Even if a few bacteria slipped through onto the cantaloupe flesh, given enough time in your refrigerator, they could potentially grow to high enough numbers to cause illness.

Beth Reames, LSU AgCenter nutritionist, says she, too, plans to eat cantaloupe but with safety in mind.

"It's always important to wash your hands and keep all food surfaces and utensils clean," she said.

The problem with food crises like this is they can turn people against a food item, she said. And cantaloupe is one of those foods that's nutrient-dense and low in calories, which people need more of in their diets.

Janes said the new food safety law that took effect in 2010 should help prevent these types of crises in the future. The law calls for more food inspectors and better record-keeping systems. But it's being implemented over a period of years as money becomes available, and funding keeps getting cut.

Reames said people keep demanding fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, even if they have to come from far-away places. Buying the available local fruits and vegetables only would at least cut down on some of the transport time in the food system. If there was a food poisoning incident, the local culprit could perhaps be caught sooner.

When local fresh fruits and vegetables aren't available, people could switch to canned or frozen fruits and vegetables where food safety issues aren't as likely to occur, Reames said.