Few things are as refreshing as chilled melon in the hot months of summer, but Midwesterners may have gotten more than they bargained for. Over the weekend, Melon Acres issued a recall on cantaloupes sold in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio after samples were found to be contaminated with Salmonella.
Melons are, unfortunately, a not uncommon source of Salmonella contamination but this particular case begs a number of questions. The melons, distributed by Farm-Wey Produce of Lakeland, Fla., were tested by the Food and Drug Administration on Aug. 11, and then distributed two and three days later to Aldi’s in Greenwood, Ind., and Meijer stores in Lansing and Newport, Mich., and Tip City, Ohio. The FDA reported its results back to Melon Acres on Aug. 21. The recall was issued Aug. 29.
So, what took so long? Communication appears to have been the biggest problem. Melon Acres, based in Oaktown, Ind., wasn’t notified of the results until about 6 p.m. on a Friday.
“Have you ever tried to get a hold of a lawyer on a Friday night?,” asked Norm Conde, project manager for Melon Acres. The growers needed the lawyer to help write up the recall, he said.
Once they did finally reach their attorney at 9 a.m. the following Monday, they were faced with more hurdles. Communications between the lawyer and an FDA official based in Michigan foundered a few times and it was the end of the week – Friday – before they finally were able to issue the recall, said Conde. By that point, of course, the melons had been on the market for a week.
No illnesses have been reported from this particular outbreak, but there have been plenty of illnesses related to Salmonella-contaminated melons – cantaloupes in particular – in the past. One of the problems with cantaloupes is the very thing that protects them: their skins. Mottled and pocked, the rough surfaces of cantaloupes provide perfect hiding places for dirt and bacteria. Unless you effectively remove all the dirt on the surface, you risk pushing pathogens into the flesh of the fruit when you slice into it. Studies show that simply rinsing or scrubbing the skin does little more than move the pathogens around, frequently into uncontaminated areas of the surface. Pathogens can work their way into the flesh through the point where the stem joins the melon, too.
“Know your grower” is probably the best rule to follow, but even that isn’t a complete safeguard. As it happens, this is the first time in its 33-year history Melon Acres has had to deal with this issue, Conde said, and the company follows strict safety practices to ensure the safety of their produce. They grow their melons on plastic mulch, for example, which in addition to speeding up the growing process also provides a barrier between the fruit and the soil, and they avoid using manure – even composted manure – for fertilizer. An on-site lab, opened this year, lets them perform their own tests, as well.
Nothing, however, is guaranteed. When you’re dealing with dirt, you’re gonna get dirty.