Salmonella outbreak probe continues; first lawsuit filed

This map from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows where people have been infected with the latest outbreak strain of salmonella as of Aug. 17.

As officials continue to investigate the source of a multistate salmonella outbreak that’s been linked to cantaloupes from southwest Indiana, the incident is focusing attention on the delay in implementing new food safety regulations.

Food-safety advocate Nancy Donley told USA Today that she's "hopping mad" over the latest food crisis. "These illnesses and deaths are preventable," said Donley, a spokeswoman for STOP Foodborne Illness. Her group has urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to more quickly put out new regulations, based on authority from 2010 legislation. "This shouldn't have happened."

Two deaths and 141 illnesses have been linked to the outbreak, which involves 20 states so far, according to The Packer trade newspaper, which noted that the name of the grower suspected in the outbreak has not been released.

So who to sue? Seattle-based Marler Clark filed a lawsuit today against Wal-Mart on behalf of a Michigan family. The complaint was filed in Calhoun County Circuit Court in Michigan on behalf of Battle Creek resident Angela Compton and her two children, who both fell ill after eating cantaloupe purchased from Wal-Mart in mid-July, according to a post on the Marler blog.

The incident comes a year after a deadly outbreak of food poisoning caused by listeria-tainted melons killed at least 30 people and sickened 146 people. From the USA Today article:

Bill Marler of the Seattle law firm Marler Clark, which specializes in food-safety law, links cantaloupes to at least 13 salmonella outbreaks since 1990. In the past, many of the outbreaks were linked to melons imported from central America. In recent years, disease outbreaks have been home-grown, Marler says.

"What frustrates me is that I can't believe it's been a year, and we've got 140 people sick and two dead," says Marler, whose law firm represents some of the victims of last year's listeria outbreak.

A cantaloupe's rough, porous skin is an easy target for bacteria, which cling to the bumps on its surface. Bacteria don't stick as easily to the hard, smooth rinds of honeydews and watermelons, says Douglas Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University.

Cantaloupes growing on the ground can also pick up dirt and germs from manure that runs off from livestock fields, or from farm workers' unsanitary bathroom practices, Powell says. Throwing cantaloupes into a big wash tub can also lead to contamination, unless farmers regularly check the water's chlorine levels. Farmers also need to ensure that employees wash their hands. And farmers should never use raw manure on their fields, he says.

It's almost impossible for consumers to adequately wash cantaloupes at home, Powell says. The knives used to cut cantaloupes transfer bacteria to the inside.

Powell says preventing outbreaks isn't complicated: "Just pay attention to food safety. The basics have been known for 15 years."

August 23 update: The Packer reports that federal officials have named Chamberlain Farms, Owensville, Ind., as the possible source of the salmonella outbreak that is responsible for two deaths and 178 illnesses in 21 states.