Most of us know we should handle raw eggs and raw poultry with special precautions or increase our chances of getting sick from salmonella food poisoning.
But now, in a first for produce, federal officials have declared all cut melons -- cantaloupes, watermelons and honeydews -- as "potentially hazardous foods" that require the same safe handling as raw eggs and poultry. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory came in an internal memorandum that was sent to all field offices in mid-July. Such reports are not ordinarily made public, but The Sun obtained a copy.
The advisory was targeted for restaurants and retailers who cut up melons for use in salad bars and produce counters, but it urged the same safety precautions for consumers.
Several reports have linked cantaloupes to salmonella poona food poisoning this summer, including a news release from the Centers for Disease Control last week. They reported that more than 400 people in 23 states became ill from eating cantaloupes in June and July. The suspect melons, no longer on the market, are thought to have been grown in the Rio Grande area of Texas. They all had been cut and held at unknown temperatures for some period of time at retail.
No cases have been linked to locally grown melons. Eleven people in Maryland who ate cantaloupe got salmonella food poisoning this summer, but state health officials have not been able to prove that melons were the culprit. The last local case was reported July 4 and the outbreak appears to be over, according to Mike Golden of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Symptoms of salmonella food poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and fever and, in severe cases, victims may die. Those at higher risk include babies, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS patients and cancer patients who have undergone chemotherapy.
The FDA speculates that human pathogens were present on the outside of the fruit and transferred to the inside when they were cut.
"It is not possible at this time to assure that all domestically produced and imported melons are free from human pathogens (including salmonella) which are naturally occurring in the environment," according to the memorandum. "The melon's natural biological structure can be expected to provide some protection against the invasion of foodborne illness organisms until this barrier is breached by slicing or cutting."
Raymond Beaulieu, assistant director of Codes and Practice for the FDA's Retail Food Protection Branch, says it is unusual to place produce in this hazardous food category, but after five salmonella outbreaks his division concluded that a prevention program was needed. The fourth outbreak from December 1980 through March 1990 involved 25,000 people in 30 states. Two of the victims died.
At this point, he says, it appears that melons are more conducive to growth of salmonella than other produce. The majority of salmonella outbreaks have been linked to watermelon and cantaloupe, but last fall more than 100 people were stricken with salmonella javiana in the Midwest after eating raw tomatoes.
This latest FDA advisory reversed a policy statement of July 3, which recommended the use of a chlorine dip solution on cantaloupes that are sliced and served at fruit and salad bars or sold directly to consumers.
"We originally recommended the chlorine dip," Mr. Beaulieu said. "But we got input from several sources and when we issued our final version we didn't think it would be necessary. If it were really necessary, I think we would still recommend it. It should be enough to remove visible soil. Good cleaning and rapid refrigeration are the important things."
Melon safety tips
What should you do to protect yourself against possible food poisoning from contaminated watermelons, cantaloupes and honeydews? The following is a compilation of advice from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
*Buy only sound, clean fruit. Do not buy fruit that is soft or cracked or split. Over-ripe melons or those with splits can permit contamination of the inside of the fruit.
*Wash fruit carefully with clean tap water, scrubbing with a fruit and vegetable brush if you want to be extra careful. Make sure to remove all visible soil.
*Make sure to use clean cutting surfaces and knives when cutting fruit. Wash cutting boards and knives immediately in hot, soapy water.
*Know the source of your produce. If you have doubts, buy melons from a farmer's market and question the farmer about his growing practices and use of fertilizer.
*If space permits, your best bet is to store whole melons in the refrigerator. Cut melons should also be stored in the refrigerator and the rind should be removed and thrown away. If you are going on a picnic, keep the melon in an ice chest.
*When refrigeration is not possible, cut melon should be thrown away after four hours.
*Avoid buying cut melons from a salad bar, particularly if they still contain the rind.