Canteloupes: Tainted By Fear, Not Listeria

Chances are, you aren’t buying canteloupes these days, scared off by the latest scare in food-borne illnesses. Canteloupes from a Colorado farm were found to be contaminated with Listeria, and have now sickened hundreds of people and killed 29, the highest death toll ever from a food-borne pathogen. The problem is, this is just the tip of a truly enormous iceberg. And canteloupes are the least of your worries.

According to one report, the CDC estimates that 245 people are actually killed by listeria every year — but these deaths are never linked to a specific outbreak so they don’t make the news. And not buying canteloupes does you absolutely no good — the canteloupes currenty in the stores have absolutely nothing to do with those that caused the outbreak. The Colorado canteloupe season is over; the current crop comes from California (my home state), where customers’ refusal to buy the fruit has desperately hurt the canteloupe farmers. They’re are leaving whole fields of fruit to rot — and leaving farmworkers without jobs — because it’s not worth the labor costs to pick them when there’s no market due to public perception.

The problem is, public perception is based on misinformation. These canteloupes are perfectly safe, while listeria lurks undetected in a host of other foods, from fruits and vegetables to meat and packaged foods. Here are the worst culprits when it comes to listeria contamination.

  • Canned and raw seafoods. When the FDA conducted a safety test of many types of food for listeria, number one on the list was smoked seafood; of the 7,855 samples tested, 12.9 percent contained listeria. All types of dried and preserved fish also tested high, as did raw seafood.
  • Fruits of all kinds. Melons can pick up the listeria bacteria, but so can any fruit. Most commonly, the listeria pathogens are carried in the soil or in water used to spray or wash the fruit or in the soil. According to the FDA, more than 11 percent of all fruits sampled tested positive for listeria. But here’s the thing to remember, the listeria is on the outside of the fruit – it doesn’t spread throughout the flesh. So if you wash fruit as soon as you buy it with an antibacterial fruit and vegetable wash or, in a pinch, with antibacterial dish soap, you should be fine. Wash it again before you eat it, or better yet, peel it.
  • Foods that are refrigerated for long periods of time. Unlike most food-borne pathogens, listeria can continue to grow under refrigeration. So refrigerating food does not prevent the growth of listeria once it’s introduced. Some types of cheeses test high in listeria, particularly aged cheeses such as brie and camembert.
  • Preserved and smoked meats. Hot dogs, sausages, salami and all manner of preserved meats eaten cold are potential listeria transmitters. According to the FDA, listeria was detected in 6.4 percent of sausage samples, 4.8 percent of hot dogs sampled, and 6.5 percent of pâtes and meat spreads.
  • Root vegetables and ground-grown vegetables like squash. Vegetables that grow in the soil, like beets, carrots, and potatoes can come in contact with listeria in the soil, as can those that grow on low-lying vines like zucchini and other types of squash. Lettuce and spinach have also tested positive for listeria. But no way should you avoid veggies, which are healthiest foods in your diet, out of fear of listeria. Instead, wash all veggies thoroughly and peel wherever appropriate. Wash both before and after you peel to prevent the bacteria being transferred on your hands.

What is Listeriosis?

The Listeria bacteria causes a systemic condition called listeriosis, which can take up to two months to show up. Once a person becomes ill, it’s usually with meningitis and encephalitis, brain infections that are often fatal or severely disabling. If your immune system is healthy, it can usually fight off the slow-growing listeria bacteria, but the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, and pregnant women are at high risk of becoming seriously ill or dying from the disease and its complications.