(BlackDoctor.org) — Are you at risk from listeria, the deadly bacteria now in the news because of contaminated cantaloupe? The death toll is rising in what is now the largest outbreak of food-borne illness in more than a decade.
Suddenly the spotlight is on listeria. What is it? Where is it? Who’s at risk? What are the symptoms? What are the best ways to avoid contamination?
What is listeria?
Like the famous mouthwash Listerine, Listeria monocytogenes was named after antiseptic pioneer Joseph Lister. It’s a very common bacterium with an unusual trait: It can grow at refrigerator temperatures. And it can build up in food-processing plants, where it can survive for years.
Where is listeria found?
Listeria is found in soil, groundwater, animal feed, sewage, and even dust. It primarily lives in soil, where the bacterium eats decaying plants. But once it makes its way into the food supply and is eaten by a human, listeria transforms into a very different bug — one that can live inside human cells.
What foods are often most contaminated with listeria?
Because listeria can grow at refrigerator temperatures and high salt concentrations, cured meats kept in the refrigerator can support listeria growth. Unpasteurized milk, unpasteurized milk products, refrigerated smoked seafood, and raw sprouts have also been implicated in listeria outbreaks. But listeria can grow on many different foods, particularly if they are stored in a contaminated refrigerator. The nationwide U.S. listeria outbreak of 2011 — the largest in more than a decade — was traced to cantaloupes.
What should I do if I bought a suspect cantaloupe or other food?
All of the cantaloupes in the current listeria outbreak came from Jensen Farms, a Colorado-based company. Although some of these cantaloupes carry a distinctive sticker, not all contaminated fruit will be marked. Ask your grocer if the cantaloupe you bought is from Jensen Farms.
If you suspect that you have a contaminated cantaloupe, do not try to wash off the listeria. Griffin of the CDC notes that it’s not clear whether a listeria-contaminated melon carries listeria on the inside as well as on the outside.
So dispose of suspect cantaloupe in a sealed bag, and make sure it will not be eaten by animals or other people.
If there is a recall or any suspicion that there is listeria in your food — be it lettuce, cheese, or hot dogs — throw it out. Do not try to wash the food because there is no way to ensure that the listeria is just on the surface. Listeria cannot be seen and it does not change the way the food looks, so always play it safe. Officials also ask that you wrap the food in a plastic bag before throwing it out to prevent another person or an animal from eating it.
As for all other produce, the FDA advises to wash all fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating, cutting, or cooking, even if you plan to peel the produce first. Scrub firm produce such as melons and cucumbers with a clean produce brush.
Is there anything else I should do if I’ve bought listeria-contaminated food?
One study found that once a listeria-contaminated food product was in a person’s home, 11% of all food samples in their refrigerators also were contaminated. Nearly two-thirds of people with listeria infections turn out to have listeria growing in their refrigerators.
So clean your refrigerator if you think you may have purchased a contaminated cantaloupe. Wash the fridge thoroughly with soap and water. Then wipe it down with a diluted solution of chlorine bleach.