Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Salmonella Panama: Del Monte's Dilemma

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Cantaloupes grown in Guatemala have been blamed for a baker's dozen of Salmonella Panama illnesses, according to CDC and various state health authorities.

CDC, which released an updated tally yesterday (March 29th), reports that the 13 outbreak victims fell ill between February 5th and March 4th. Three of the 13 infected individuals were hospitalized.

In response to the outbreak, Del Monte Fresh Produce N.A. Inc. recalled cantaloupe melons (packaged three to a bag in mesh bags) that were distributed through warehouse stores in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. The recalled melons all came from a single Del Monte Fresh Produce farm – the Asuncion Mita farm in Guatemala – and were sold in Costco stores in those seven states between March 10th and March 21st.

Based on information contained in the CDC report and obtained from health officials in the affected states, the 13 confirmed cases of Salmonella Panama infections are located in:

  • Alaska.- No cases of Salmonella Panama have been reported.

  • California.- Two confirmed cases. Based on the retail distribution list posted by the California Department of Public Health, the recalled melons were sold in Costco stores in Northern California.

  • Colorado.- One confirmed case. The victim reported having eaten cantaloupe "from a warehouse store" prior to becoming ill.

  • Idaho.- No cases have been confirmed. The Central District Health Department is investigating a cluster of approximately 40 people who fell ill after attending a March 12th wedding reception in the Boise area at which cantaloupe from Costco was served. Two of the ill individuals submitted stool samples, which are still undergoing lab tests for Salmonella and Norovirus. Two melons were obtained from Costco for testing, but the store could not confirm whether the melons were from an implicated lot. Neither melon yielded Salmonella.

  • Maryland.- One confirmed case matching the outbreak strain. This victim reported having eaten cantaloupe in the week prior to becoming ill. The cantaloupe WAS NOT purchased at Costco.

  • Montana.- No cases of Salmonella Panama have been reported.

  • Oregon.- Five confirmed cases, among attendees at a church supper where cantaloupe purchased from Costco was served. An additional three attendees at the supper also were ill, but have not been lab-confirmed. One more person was infected with a very similar (but distinguishable) genetic variant of Salmonella Panama, and also reported having consumed melon from Costco.

  • Washington.- Four confirmed cases, including one adult (male), and three children (2 boys and one girl). The adult victim is from Whatcom County; the children live in Thurston County (one boy) and King County (one boy and one girl).

According to Bill Keene, Oregon's No. 1 Disease Detective, Costco receives only about 6% of the cantaloupes grown on Del Monte's Asuncion Mita farm. The rest of the crop is shipped to numerous other wholesalers and retailers – most, but not all, of them in the USA. The farm comprises some 15 cantaloupe fields, which are planted and harvested in series to ensure a continuous supply of melons. The last of the 15 fields to be harvested has been shut down since early March.

I asked Bill Keene about the rationale behind the recall. He said that the situation presented quite a dilemma, both to public health officials and to Del Monte. By the time the outbreak was identified and a probable source determined – which happened rather quickly, thanks to the relative rarity of Salmonella Panama and the Oregon illness cluster – the implicated melons had passed their usable shelf life. There was no point in recalling fruit that was no longer edible.

Why, then, did Del Monte recall the cantaloupes that were sold in Costco stores in several states beginning on March 10th? According to Keene, it was unclear whether the outbreak was a "one-off" problem relating to a small quantity of melons from one portion of a single field or whether it was a continuing situation. Del Monte Fresh Produce, therefore, decided on the recall.

And why was the recall limited to cantaloupes shipped to Costco in seven states? Because, except for the Maryland case, all of the illnesses were clustered within that group of states and were linked to cantaloupes purchased from Costco stores. It did not seem logical to recall the entire remaining production from the Asuncion Mita farm for what appeared to be a limited contamination problem.

Was Del Monte's decision justified? So far, it looks as though the company, in consultation with public health officials, made a reasonable call. While it's too soon to say for sure, the outbreak appears to have burned out.

Nevertheless, consumers should remain wary of cantaloupes. Avoid purchasing or consuming melons with bruised or broken skin. Wash the cantaloupes before cutting them open, and store cut cantaloupe in the refrigerator to minimize the risk of bacterial growth.

Finally, if you think that you have become ill after eating cantaloupe – or any other food – seek medical advice and cooperate with your public health authorities. This includes providing stool or any other clinical samples on request. "It is the only way," says Tom Shanahan of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, " to confirm a link."

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