Published on: 16:16PM Oct 05, 2011
John Rigolizzo Jr. – Berlin, New Jersey
They’re calling it the worst food-disease outbreak in more than a decade: Eighteen Americans are dead after eating cantaloupes contaminated by a type of bacteria known as Listeria. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 100 people in 20 states had fallen sick as of Tuesday. The grim numbers are expected to go up.
Nothing can change these terrible facts and figures. Families who lost loved ones are hurting and the sick are suffering through a painful, gut-wrenching illness.
Amid this tragedy, however, it’s possible to see the makings of a success story. In quick fashion, our food regulators discovered a problem, identified its source, and took steps to contain the damage. They spotted a bad situation and kept it from growing significantly worse.
And it’s possible that in the future, we could do even better.
Here’s what we know: The contaminated cantaloupes apparently came from a single farm in Colorado. They were distributed widely, often carrying a sticker that marked them as Rocky Ford Cantaloupes from Jensen Farms or distributed by Frontera Produce. On September 14, the Food and Drug Administration put out an alert and a recall was underway.
Without these actions, the Listeria outbreak almost certainly would have been worse--perhaps much worse.
We know how many people this case of food contamination has killed so far, but we don’t know how many people the actions of regulators have saved. All of us should be grateful for what they have done.
That includes farmers like me. One of the benefits of the current system of detection is that by pinpointing the origin of the problem, regulators can focus their attention on the true source of concern rather than on the entire cantaloupe industry. In the past--most recently in Europe--we’ve seen governments uproot whole fields in frantic attempts to halt problems they didn’t fully comprehend.
I’ve grown cantaloupes on my farm in New Jersey. The key to success is picking them at exactly the right time. A few hours can make all the difference. Sometimes cantaloupes that aren’t ready in the morning grow ripe by the afternoon and can’t wait until the next day. Farmers must keep track of sensitive timetables.
Cantaloupes also need a lot of protection. They have thin skins and require fungicide sprays to stay healthy. The recent outbreak is something of a surprise because Listeria is usually associated with meats. Precisely how the bacteria found its way into the cantaloupes is a question investigators are now studying. What they learn may help us keep cantaloupes everywhere safer.
A common step in cantaloupe processing involves dipping the fruits in disinfectants after they’re harvested. This is worth doing, but its effects don’t penetrate the skin of the fruit. If a disease lurks inside the cantaloupe, as seems to have been the case with Listeria, dipping won’t touch it.
Another approach may help. It’s called irradiation--a useful and effective technique with an unfortunate name that makes some consumers worry their food will glow in the dark. Yet brief exposure to x-rays or gamma rays can wipe out an enormous amount of food-borne illnesses. It would also extend the shelf life of many fruits and vegetables.
Unfortunately today, irradiation remains an exception in food processing rather than the norm. This must change--and perhaps change should begin with a successful rebranding.
More than a century ago, the British doctor Joseph Lister pioneered the idea of antiseptic surgery--the idea that sterile equipment would prevent new infections in patients. His name survives on bottles of Listerine, which kills germs that cause bad breath.
Listeria also takes its moniker from Dr. Lister, even though it wasn’t discovered until after his death. I’m not sure I’d want a family of bacteria named after me, but the scientists who named Listeria intended to honor the doctor for his contributions to human health.
So here’s a thought. Let’s give irradiation a new name. Let’s call it “listerization”--like “pasteurization,” named after Louis Pasteur--and encourage its use as a life-saving tool of the modern food industry.
If we’re serious about controlling food-borne diseases, it’s a step we must take.