One cup of sliced cantaloupe meets the recommended daily intake of vitamins A and C, but the fruit’s nutrient-rich flesh also supports the growth of dangerous pathogens that have caused 30 U.S. outbreaks and recalls since 1990.
Contaminants easily latch onto the netted rind of a cantaloupe, hidden among the bumps and crevices of the irregular surface. Surface bacteria can cross-contaminate the interior of the melon and fuel the growth of salmonella and E. coli, bacteria responsible for foodborne illnesses.
“The meaty part of the cantaloupe has all the stuff that bacteria would need for growth,” said Dr. Khalil S. Zadeh, infectious disease epidemiologist and director of Lapuck Laboratories Inc., a private laboratory in Massachusetts.
Salmonella-tainted produce is one of the top 10 pathogen-food combinations that threaten human health, according to a 2011 report by the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. Twenty eight outbreaks and recalls linked to cantaloupe were caused by salmonella from 1990 to 2011, according to research compiled by News21.
Contamination can occur from fecal matter left when deer or birds venture into fields. Heavy rainfall can flood melon fields, and water runoff can carry contaminants into fields or irrigation systems.
Workers also can contaminate cantaloupe if they don’t thoroughly wash their hands or if they work with exposed skin lesions.
In 2005, produce associations, in an effort to come up with standardized safety guidelines, released melon-specific agricultural and handling procedures, which were endorsed by the FDA four years later.
Sanitation treatments can reduce surface contaminants, but pathogens are difficult to completely remove from the melon’s rough exterior, even if scrubbed. Proper refrigeration is key to reducing the growth of external and internal contaminants.
“Even after slicing and perhaps maybe contaminating the (interior of a) cantaloupe, (if) you just move it to a refrigeration temperature immediately, there’s not very much risk,” Zadeh said, referring to the 41 F or below required to minimize bacteria growth. “But think about the actual practice – that’s not the case, neither in food service nor in homes.”
If cantaloupe is served at room temperature, a small number of bacteria on slices can “grow into the many millions,” said Roy Costa, president of the Florida-based environmental health consulting firm, Environ Health Associates Inc.
“If you were to let (sliced cantaloupe) sit around for a few hours at room temperature, now you will make the majority of people that eat that (sliced cantaloupe) ill,” he said.
Zadeh said every step of the supply chain is important in reducing instances of foodborne illness.
“Obviously, the processors or the retailers or the food service people absolutely have to assume that when they receive cantaloupes, they have to assume that it’s contaminated,” he said.