A deadly salmonella outbreak traced back to cantaloupes has claimed the lives of at least five people and infected over 100 people across Canada, prompting a warning from experts to remain vigilant, look for signs of the infection, and consider temporarily avoiding melons.
Salmonella, a bacterial infection commonly transmitted through contaminated food and water, poses a significant health threat, especially to children and older adults, as it can lead to severe gastrointestinal symptoms, dehydration, and, in extreme cases, death.
“Salmonella is one of the most prolific pathogens we know,” said Keith Warriner, a food safety professor from the University of Guelph. “The reason why it’s so successful is that it can survive any environment. It can be passed from person to person and passed into foods.”
In October and November, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued several recalls of fruit due to salmonella risks. The majority of these recalls involved various brands of cantaloupe, including pre-cut chunks and whole melons.
Fresh-cut fruit brands recalled in multiple provinces for salmonella risk
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said Thursday that, based on the investigation findings to date, consumption of Malichita and Rudy brand cantaloupes has been identified as the likely source of the outbreak. The outbreak has also spread across six provinces: British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador.
As CFIA continues its investigation, it warned more recalls may be on the horizon.
What makes this bacteria so dangerous is its ability to invade the lining of the intestines, where it can then enter the bloodstream, causing extreme dehydration and even sepsis, Warriner warned. The spread can lead to widespread infection and affect vital organs.
This is especially dangerous for older adults, young children, people who are pregnant and those with weakened immune systems.
“In the current case, the main sort of vector of patients are the infants and the elderly. Both are very prone to salmonella,” Warriner said.
The majority of the individuals who became sick in the current salmonella outbreak are children five years old and younger, as well as adults 65 years of age or older, according to PHAC.
How does salmonella get into cantaloupe?
Salmonella can seep into cantaloupe when people use compost, manure, or come into contact with farm animals, creating a pathway for the bacteria to contaminate the soil, Warriner said.
“The cantaloupe then gets laid down into the soil,” he said. “And the thing about salmonella, it lasts a long time.”
When harvesting cantaloupes that are potentially exposed to salmonella, they then undergo a thorough washing process in a large tank, Warriner continued.
Cantaloupes recalled due to possible salmonella contamination
“This tank of water acts like an inoculation bath because you can’t wash salmonella off,” he said.
If the bacteria is present on the surface, the process of cutting into the fruit then allows it to get into the flesh, creating an optimal environment for the growth of salmonella. The salmonella continues to spread at room temperature.
Additionally, the prolonged shelf life of cantaloupes contributes to the persistence of the bacteria, he said.
Although it’s not known exactly how this particular batch of cantaloupes became contaminated, April Hexemer, the director of the Outbreak Management Division at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said it’s happened in the past.
“There have been outbreaks linked to contaminated cantaloupe in the past,” she told Global News. “Sometimes it’s bird droppings, sometimes there’s contamination in the irrigation water and in the soil. But what happened in this case, we still don’t know. And that’s still under investigation.”
What are salmonella infection symptoms?
Symptoms of salmonella infection typically start between six and 72 hours after exposure and can last anywhere from four to seven days, according to PHAC.
They may include:
- Abdominal cramps
PHAC added that people who are infected with the bacteria can spread it to others several days or weeks after they have become infected, even if they don’t have symptoms. Salmonella can spread by person-to-person contact and contaminated surfaces.
Symptoms of food-borne illnesses, like salmonella, can look like the stomach flu, Warriner said. But there are ways to help decipher between the two.
“Typically, if you’ve got diarrhea for more than two days, that’s definitely a time to seek medical advice, and if you ever get blood in your stool that’s also a time to seek medical attention,” he cautioned.
What should you do if you suspect you have it?
If you suspect you have contracted salmonella, PHAC recommends seeing a health-care provider.
Salmonella infection symptoms usually last four to seven days, and most people recover on their own without any medical treatment, the agency said.
However, salmonella carries the risk of severe dehydration, and Warriner advises that if you’re concerned, head to the emergency room where healthcare providers can administer intravenous fluids.
“You need rehydrating. You might be drinking lots of things, but you’re being sick and not retaining fluids,” he said.
While the majority of salmonella infections typically resolve on their own, Warriner said in instances where the infection has gone beyond the intestines or when there’s an elevated risk of severe illness, antibiotics may be needed.
How to stay safe
To prevent the illness linked to the current salmonella outbreak, PHAC recommends not eating, serving, or distributing any Malichita or Rudy brand cantaloupe. If you are not able to verify the brand of the cantaloupe, it’s recommended to throw it out.
Warriner cautioned that although the brand of fruit has been sourced, the health agency has not pinpointed the specific farm where the outbreak might have originated.
“Until they find the source, why take the risk of having a cantaloupe?” he said. “Avoid melons from this point on, and avoid pre-cut.”
Because antelopes have such a long shelf life Warriner believes there may still be more contaminated products out there.
— With files from Global News’ Heidi Petracek
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