Get The Facts: Melon Safety

by in Food News & Trends, Food Safety, November 9, 2011
Is your melon safe?

The recent Listeria outbreak has made us aware that our food supply isn’t as safe as we may think. This isn’t the first time melon has caused illness or even death. Here’s a look at melon outbreaks and simple tips to keep your loved ones safe.

Past Melon Outbreaks
Sliced melon is no stranger to foodborne illness. It’s considered a potentially hazardous food, meaning a food that has the ability for bacteria to grow and thrive. One of the most memorable stories I can recall happened in 2000. A 2-year old girl fell ill and died after eating at a Milwaukee Sizzler. Although the girl never ate the E. Coli tainted ground beef, it was argued that the sliced melon she ate contained the bacteria. The alleged faux pas made during preparation was cross-contamination.

The recent outbreak of cantaloupe has shed light on the importance of keeping melon safe. As of today, 133 people have become ill and 28 have died throughout 26 states from Listeria-tainted cantaloupe. Although Jensen Farms in Colorado recalled the cantaloupes on September 14, symptoms of Listeria can take up to 2 months to appear. So the numbers can still go up through November.

The Scary Bacteria
Sliced melon can become tainted with a variety of bacteria. The two mentioned above (E. Coli and Listeria) have particularly scary symptoms. Although E. Coli is usually associated with undercooked ground beef, many people forget that foods can easily be cross-contaminated with the bacteria. Once you prep ground beef, the bacteria remains on the surfaces, utensils, cutting boards and even your hands. If you slice melon on the same surface or with the same unwashed hands, the results can be deadly. Symptoms of E. Coli start with diarrhea which can become watery or bloody, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting. Eventually it can lead to blood and kidney problems (including kidney failure in the long run).

Listeria affects the very young and old. Cross-contamination, unwashed hands and improper refrigeration of food can lead to the transfer and growth of bacteria on melon. If you’ve been pregnant within the past 10 years or so, your doctor probably told you to stay away from foods associated with Listeria like soft cheese, deli meats, undercooked hot dogs and raw sprouts. If a pregnant woman gets infected with the bacteria during her third trimester, it can lead to a miscarriage.

Cantaloupe Safety Tips
It’s important to remember that cantaloupe is grown close to the soil, where they can become contaminated by bacteria. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Inspect melons before buying. Do not purchase those with sunken areas, cuts or blemishes.
  • Don’t wash melons until you’re ready to serve them. This will decrease the chances of mold growth.
  • Before slicing melon, wash under cool, running water. Use a clean brush to remove soil from that may be stuck in the rind. You can also use a produce wash; use as directed.
  • Slice melon using a clean and sanitary cutting board, knife and clean hands.
  • Once melon is sliced, it must be refrigerated or served. Sliced melon should not sit out longer than 2 hours.
  • If you bought pre-cut melon, be sure to store it in the refrigerator at 41 degrees or below. Be sure to read the package for the “use by” date.

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Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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