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Listeria 101: learn the basics of the cantaloupe contaminant

October 5th, 2011 10:29 am by Pat Everheart

You think you’re safe with those precooked, factory sealed hot dogs that you’ve dutifully kept refrigerated and somebody still gets sick. Maybe it wasn’t even from eating the hot dogs — if you heated them properly. Maybe it was the raw carrots that got a little too close to the juice from hot dog package.

Listeria bacteria are sneaky that way. They can lurk in processing plants for years and get into the foods between factory cooking and factory packaging and don’t seem to be bothered by refrigeration. While the bacteria are in your refrigerator, they can ride the drips that seep through openings in package and contaminate your carefully washed carrots. Or they can lie in wait on the counter or cutting board.

Fortunately, most of us can consume contaminated food without getting sick. Others have to be extra cautious. Pregnant women, people with weakened immune systems and people with illnesses such as diabetes, alcoholism or liver and kidney disease.

So far, Tennessee has been free of listeriosis from the Colorado cantaloupe contamination outbreak that has killed 15 and sickened 84 people in 19 states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more illnesses could still be reported because up to two months can elapse between eating contaminated food and developing listeriosis. All the illnesses have been traced to Jensen Farm’s Rocky Ford brand of cantaloupes, which voluntarily recalled the produce Sept. 14.

The recalled cantaloupes may be labeled “Colorado Grown,” “Distributed by Frontera Produce,” “  ” or “Sweet Rocky Fords.” Not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the Food and Drug Administration said. The company said it shipped out more than 300,000 cases of cantaloupes that contained five to 15 melons, meaning the recall involved 1.5 million to 4.5 million pieces of fruit.

Tennessee was listed in the recall, but Tennessee Department of Agriculture spokesman Tom Womack said the outbreak hasn’t really affected the state.

Womack said the recall information has been passed to department inspectors who have made sure both retail and wholesale food establishments across the state are aware of it.

“We encourage them to check the sources of their product to be sure that it’s not a part of the recall and if they cannot determine the source with some degree of confidence we are urging them to take that off the shelf,” he said.

Womack said that’s a good rule of thumb for consumers, too.

With the outbreak in the news, now’s a good time to learn the basics about the sneaky little culprit.
Recommendations for people at high risk, such as pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems include:

— Do not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats, cold cuts, other deli meats (e.g., bologna) or fermented or dry sausages unless they are heated to an internal temperature of 165°F or until steaming hot just before serving.
— Avoid getting fluid from hot dog and lunch meat packages on other foods, utensils and food preparation surfaces, and wash hands after handling hot dogs, luncheon meats, and deli meats.
— Do not eat refrigerated pâté or meat spreads from a deli or meat counter or from the refrigerated section of a store. Foods that do not need refrigeration, like canned or shelf-stable pâté and meat spreads, are safe to eat. Refrigerate after opening.

— Do not eat soft cheese such as feta, queso blanco, queso fresco, brie, Camembert, blue-veined or panela (queso panela) unless it is labeled as made with pasteurized milk. Make sure the label says, “MADE WITH PASTEURIZED MILK.”
— Do not eat refrigerated smoked seafood, unless it is contained in a cooked dish, such as a casserole or unless it is a canned or shelf-stable product. Refrigerated smoked seafood, such as salmon, trout, whitefish, cod, tuna, and mackerel, is most often labeled as “nova-style,” “lox,” “kippered” “smoked” or “jerky.” These fish are typically found in the refrigerator section or sold at seafood and deli counters of grocery stores and delicatessens. Canned and shelf stable tuna, salmon and other fish products are safe to eat.
Listeriosis, a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. It primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. However, rarely, persons without these risk factors can also be affected. The risk may be reduced by following a few simple recommendations.
• Thoroughly cook raw food from animal sources, such as beef, pork, or poultry to a safe internal temperature.
• Rinse raw fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running tap water before eating.
• Keep uncooked meats and poultry separate from vegetables and from cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods.
• Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk, and do not eat foods that have unpasteurized milk in them.
• Wash hands, knives, countertops and cutting boards after handling and preparing uncooked foods.
• Consume perishable and ready-to-eat foods as soon as possible.
A person with listeriosis usually has fever and muscle aches, sometimes preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal symptoms. Almost everyone who is diagnosed with listeriosis has “invasive” infection, in which the bacteria spread beyond the gastrointestinal tract. The symptoms vary with the infected person:

• Pregnant women typically experience only a mild, flu-like illness. However, infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery or life-threatening infection of the newborn.

• Persons other than pregnant women: Symptoms, in addition to fever and muscle aches, can include headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance and convulsions.

Sources: FDA, CDC

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