What the listeria outbreak in Colorado cantaloupes reveals about our food system

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Photo: Cantaloupes

The deadly bacteria outbreak in Colorado cantaloupes a few years ago holds a lot of lessons about the weaknesses in the food safety system in the U.S. and what consumers can do to protect themselves, according to a new book by two reporters who covered the outbreak closely.

Thirty-three people died after eating cantaloupe melons grown near the town of Holly, Colo., in 2011, in what would become the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in modern American history. The victims were contaminated with listeria. The brothers who owned the farm were recently sentenced to five years probation and six months of home detention.

Reporters Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown covered the outbreak for The Denver Post. Their new book is called "Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe...and How You Can." (Learn more about the authors' upcoming reading at the Tattered Cover bookstore on Colfax Avenue in Denver.)

"There are systemic reasons why [the cantaloupe outbreak] was allowed to spread all over the country, and why nobody caught it, and why it took a very quick effort on the part of Colorado’s health department to finally nail it down and figure out how to stop it," Booth says.

When such outbreaks occur, there’s a lot of detective work involved, according to Brown and Booth. In the case of the contaminated melons, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Deptartment of Public Health and Environment helped isolate the source of the bacteria.

According to the book, epidemiologist Alicia Cronquist learned two unrelated people were sick with listeria bacteria at the same time, which seemed odd to her.

"In Colorado that summer, Cronquist’s suspicions launched several intense weeks of late-night brainstorming, blood samples rushed to the state lab, confiscations of half-eaten food from patients’ refrigerators and, later, state scientists shopping for groceries and then swabbing them for contaminants," Brown and Booth write.

That investigation eventually took Brown and Booth to the cantaloupe field in Holly, a small farming town in Southeastern Colorado, and particularly to Jensen Farms. The authors write that the farm, "had never been swabbed by inspectors who had a license to stop illnesses."

Many consumers assume that inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration have pored over every single farm in America to make sure they’re safe, but that's simply not the case, the writers say.

So how do you make sure the food you eat is safe? Booth and Brown offer a number of “defensive eating” suggestions for consumers, including these tips on what to look for at the grocery store:

Excerpt from: "Eating Dangerously: Why the Government Can’t Keep Your Food Safe...and How You Can," by Michael Booth and Jennifer Brown. Copyright 2014, Michael Booth, Jennifer Brown, and Rowman & Littlefield.

How many times have you grabbed the milk first, wandered over to the bakery aisle, checked the price on the latest Adam Sandler DVD, asked a few questions at the seafood counter, searched high and low for canned artichokes, and then realized your milk isn’t cold anymore?

A little terrain mapping of your regular grocery store is a good way to head off some food-illness dangers before you’ve even paid for the food. Grocery chains hire PhDs in human behavior and marketing to make your visit as labyrinthine and long as possible. More time in the store means more dollars in the till. Fight back with a little basic understanding about where they put the popular stuff, where they put the fresh stuff, and where they put the dangerous stuff.

Shop for dry goods first. You can take all day and even fit in that movie. Pasta, breads, canned items, the massive cereal aisle, all the bathroom needs like tissue and shampoo and toothpaste. With the cans, you probably remember a parent’s warning not to buy any cans that bulge outward, an unnatural result that can be an indicator of contaminants growing inside. But also keep an eye out for dents—they may be the result of an innocent drop or ding, but the dents can create a weak spot for outside bacteria to penetrate the can.

When that part of the list is done, cruise through the cooler aisles stacked with milk, cheese, eggs, and fresh meat. And now that you’re standing near the chicken parts, look up and realize why they hang rollers of clear plastic bags that seem to belong more in the produce aisles. Many home economists recommend bagging your fresh meat for an extra barrier between the meat packages and anything in your cart that might be consumed raw.

If you’re planning to use the same hand to pick out fresh produce, slide your hand inside the empty bag first, grab the meat package with the bag as a glove, and invert the bag as you put it in your cart. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean all those food pathogens aren’t really out to get you.

Easy steps like these can keep you mindful of food safety without pushing your behavior into the nut aisle.

Some consumer advisers will nudge meat lovers toward a grocery store’s fresh butcher counter if they insist on continuing to eat ground beef. They might recommend asking the store’s butcher to take an intact cut of beef, such as top sirloin or a chuck roast, and grind it on site into hamburger.

It’s true this avoids the likelihood of buying hamburger made from grinded beef “trim” gathered from cows raised in a half-dozen states and foreign countries, a process that multiplies the hazards of E. coli by mashing all the “outside” beef surfaces into a ground core where pathogens are harder to cook out safely. At least one specialty grocer warns, however, that those butcher counters aren’t always hazard free, either. They are only as good as the sanitary habits of the butcher and any assistants, handling multiple cuts of beef under pressure of consumer time and demands. Reconsider frozen meat. One small chain sells ground bison burgers, from buffalo that are raised on the prairie and shot where they graze. The meat is packaged and frozen within about an hour, avoiding the feedlot and slaughterhouse messes that can turn cattle operations into a pathogen nightmare.

Careful meat consumers may also want to study up on a preservative packaging technique involving the counterintuitive deployment of carbon monoxide. These telltale puffy packages pump the gas around the meat, and the treatment can help keep beef looking red and healthy for 20 days on the shelf. The problem is, consumer advocates warn, the meat may still be spoiling under the mask of a better color. The meat industry and regulators worked out one of those head-slapping euphemisms for the process—“modified atmosphere packaging,” as if it were just a pine tree air freshener in the family sedan. It may be hard to tell which mainstream packagers use the technique, so look for a “natural” label on the beef. “Natural” packagers can’t use carbon monoxide.

As you head toward the produce aisle, remember that the total time from your grocery store cooler to your refrigerator should never be longer than four hours, according to most safety experts. Some say even two hours is pushing it.

The first thing that might hit you in produce is a rainstorm. Ever wonder about those artificial thunderstorms that emanate from hidden speakers and spout a rainforest mist from overhead spigots? Do they actually clean the lettuce? Are they creating a toxic pool of festering bacteria under your green onions? Are they freshening things up or making things worse? Most kitchen advisors call it a draw. The cold water can revive and preserve greens, keeping them from drying out and becoming vulnerable to various forms of rot. But they can also make dessicated greens look more alluring than they deserve. Ignore the distracting rainstorm and use your powers of discrimination to find a fresh sample.

The number-one question here in produce is bruised fruit: in need of a good, understanding home, or dangerous to your happy home? Kitchen scientists are more worried about scratch-and-dent fruit than they used to be, now that they have powerful microscopes and video that can show minute pathogens invading openings at a once invisible level. You might as well get your money’s worth and seek out the least blemished fruit. If you do take home some orphaned apples or beat-up pears, cut generously around the bruises and dents that can act as wide-open doors to bacteria.

Bag the produce before putting it in your cart. The plastic can be recycled, and an extra barrier between the greens and the cart, or the fruit and that drippy meat, is another food safety bonus. You don’t know where that cart has been—it’s fairly likely the germ mobile recently toured the store carrying a sneezy kid eating a sticky fruit roll-up. Keep the bagged produce away from your chicken and other raw meats, even if the meats are also in plastic bags. It only takes a drop of chicken juice dribbling out of the bag to contaminate your veggies. The produce bags have the added bonus of keeping your purchases off the checkout conveyor belt, which just in the last hour has likely hosted everything from fast-thawing ribs to bleach.

There are a few areas and shelves in the grocery store most food safety experts just don’t want you near, no matter how careful or lucky you think you are. To name a few:

• The part of the seafood aisle offering oysters from the Gulf of Mexico

• Raw—meaning unpasteurized—milk and milk-based products, such as Mexican-style “queso fresco”

• Health-food sprouts, from alfalfa to radish to mung bean.

The oysters are too often contaminated with dangerous bacteria, especially in summer. Raw milk products are notorious contributors to outbreaks, including one of the deadliest in the modern era. Sprouts contribute up to 40 percent of all produce-related illness cases in a given year, because the time, warmth, and humidity it takes to grow them from seeds are all safe havens for bacteria. If the health food side of you wins when it comes to sprouts, cook them thoroughly instead of eating them raw. Throw them in the stir fry for as long as you cook the other vegetables, and don’t just toss them in at the end for a quick sauté.

Natural grocers have one last buying tip for the growing number of consumers looking to nuts as a protein alternative for vegetarians and those cutting back on red meat. Extra-careful stores will refrigerate pistachios, almonds, and other nuts, as leaving them out for too long at room temperature can risk rancidity.

There’s one last grocery-store-related step after you’ve brought it all home. Pleased with yourself because you remembered to use the reusable shopping bags that were drifting aimlessly around your back seat? Great, but don’t forget to throw them in the washing machine. Bacteria love to reuse things, too, unless somebody breaks the cycle.