A multistate Salmonella Adelaide outbreak linked to precut melons has sickened at least 60 people. The precut melons were sold in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio at Costco, Jay C, Kroger, Payless, Owen’s, Sprouts, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon locations.
The case count by state is: Illinois (6), Indiana (11), Michigan (32), Missouri (10), and Ohio (1). Out of 47 people who have been interviewed by public health officials, 31, or 66%, have been hospitalized.
But how does this type of food become contaminated in the first place? Fruit isn’t a typical source of pathogenic bacteria like ground beef or chicken. Where does the bacteria come from?
Foodborne illness from fresh fruit is caused by bacterial pathogens. They originate in the guts of animals and humans and are passed into the environment in fecal material. The pathogens, which are too small to see with the naked eye, land on the surface of fruit items in a variety of ways:
- On the hands of pickers and handlers
- In irrigation, run-off, and wash water
- By direct contact with animals, insects and birds
- Contact with soil harboring microorganisms
- By cross contamination in harvesting, handling, processing, storage facilities and transport.
We asked attorney Fred Pritzker, who has represented many clients in Salmonella outbreaks linked to fruit and other types of produce, about these questions. He said there are several ways the precut melons can be contaminated, and several ways the contamination can spread.
Fred said, “First, produce is a common source of food poisoning, especially for Salmonella. The issues include the facts that bacteria are everywhere, this type of product doesn’t have what is called a ‘kill step,’ and when produce is processed in central processing hubs, one batch of contaminated fruit or vegetables can contaminate a large amount of product.”
He continued, “melons can be, and have been, contaminated in the field. The bacteria could come from agricultural runoff, from contaminated irrigation water, from ill workers, or just from animals and birds. Melons, especially cantaloupes, have deeply webbed and crenelated skins where bacteria can hide. When bacteria attach to that skin, it’s difficult to remove the pathogens. The bacteria can form biofilms, which protect the bacteria and make them more resistant to cleaning products.
“Now that fruit is harvested, cleaned at the farm, and transferred in shipping containers to processing centers. If those machines that clean the fruit, and the containers that hold them aren’t cleaned, contamination could happen at that step.
“The next opportunity for contamination can happen at the processing center,” Fred said. “The melons are washed again, then peeled and cut. Cutting into the skin will distribute bacteria throughout the flesh. At each of those steps, the possibility of cross-contamination is very real. The fruit is not heated to a temperature that would kill the bacteria (the ‘kill step’) so any bacteria on just one or two melons could contaminate hundreds or thousands of pounds of finished product.”
Caito Foods has recalled the precut melons watermelon, honeydew melon, cantaloupe, and fresh cut mixed fruit products in association with this outbreak. They were sold under the brand names Open Acres, Sprouts Farmers Market, Trader Joe’s, Delish, Freshness Guaranteed, and Whole Foods Market Label. Check your refrigerator to see if you have any of these products, and if you do, throw them away.
The symptoms of a Salmonella infection include a fever, abdominal and stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that can be bloody. Symptoms usually begin a few hours to three days after a person ingests the bacteria, and most people are sick for about a week.
In some cases, particularly if the patient is a child, elderly, and anyone with a chronic health problem, the illness can get into the blood stream and hospitalization is necessary. Dehydration can also lead to hospitalization.