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Food Poison Journal Food Poisoning Outbreaks and Litigation: Surveillance and Analysis

Cantaloupe: the new lettuce or spinach

The first lawsuit in the Salmonella cantaloupe outbreak is now a going concern.  More will follow, against retailers of the contaminated cantaloupes, as well as the farm that grew the bad fruit, Chamberlain Farms in southwest Indiana.  This cantaloupe salmonella outbreak almost the 20th (give or take a few) cantaloupe outbreak since 1985, and follows by almost exactly one year, one of the most lethal outbreaks in US history–also a cantaloupe outbreak, but linked to Jensen Farms in Colorado.

Back a few years ago, leafy green vegetables like lettuce and spinach were the dish de jour for food poisoning outbreaks.  The spinach E. coli outbreak in 2006 (Marler Clark represented over 100 people; 30+ who developed kidney failure) occurred less than one year after the FDA sent this letter to the leafy greens industry in Salinas Valley, California:

FDA is aware of 18 outbreaks of foodborne illness since 1995 caused by Escherichia coli O157:H7 for which fresh or fresh-cut lettuce was implicated as the outbreak vehicle. In one additional case, fresh-cut spinach was implicated. These 19 outbreaks account for approximately 409 reported cases of illness and two deaths. Although tracebacks to growers were not completed in all 19 outbreak investigations, completed traceback investigations of eight of the outbreaks associated with lettuce and spinach, including the most recent lettuce outbreak in Minnesota, were traced back to Salinas, California.

Then the spinach outbreak happened, killing 5, sickening well over 200, and causing dozens of cases of hemolytic uremic syndrome.  The spinach outbreak was followed, in late 2006, by two more major lettuce E. coli outbreaks, and Marler Clark’s revenues from lawsuits against the leafy greens industries skyrocketed.  For the full history, see:  Salinas Valley, Leafy Green Vegetables, and E. coli

Fast forward a few years.  Even before the fateful (and fatal) Jensen Farms cantaloupe outbreak, the cantaloupe industry was under fire, having caused at least 15 recognized outbreaks since 1985.  Then 147 were sickened, and 37 died in the Jensen Farms cantaloupe listeria outbreak, and the ground beneath the cantaloupe industry’s feet shook.  Incoming revenues at Marler Clark had already shifted from the pockets of the leafy greens industry to the cantaloupe industry (anecdotally, major leafy greens outbreaks are down since the disastrous year of 2006).   

It seems like the cantaloupe industry is at a crossroads.  To think otherwise would be to ignore reality.  Cantaloupes have caused 215 severe illnesses in just the last 2 major outbreaks (in less than a year’s time), and have killed a total of 39 people during that stretch.  It seems, also, that the industry now has a reason, and an opportunity, to do right by its brand, and by its millions of customers nationally, many of whom are probably not even glancing at the cantaloupe display anymore when walking down the grocery aisle–and with good reason.

The choice is straightforward.  Change or suffer the losses of an industry with a continuing, very severe problem.