INDIANAPOLIS - A deadly outbreak of salmonella in cantaloupes is stirring controversy about how transparent state and federal health authorities should be as they investigate the source of food-borne illnesses.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Indiana State Department of Health advised consumers Friday to throw out cantaloupe grown in southwestern Indiana following a salmonella outbreak that killed two people and sickened about 150 people across the country.
As a result of initial investigations by Indiana and Kentucky state health officials, an unidentified farm in southwestern Indiana voluntarily contacted its distributors and withdrew its cantaloupe from the market. The farm also agreed to stop shipping the melon for the rest of the growing season.
Some food safety advocates are now calling on health officials to release the name of the farm and stores where its cantaloupes were sold.
"We want every bit of information possible," said Nancy Donley, a spokeswoman with STOP Foodborne Illness, a food safety advocacy group. Her son died in 1993 from E. coli-contaminated ground beef.
"We are very concerned that the health and welfare of businesses can be put at higher priority than that of the public health and safety," she said.
State health officials say they are withholding the name of the farm because the recall was not mandated and the source of the outbreak remains under investigation. Indiana is the nation's fifth-largest producer of cantaloupe, with more than 2,300 acres harvested in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We do not have a definitive source for this outbreak," Indiana Health Commissioner Gregory Larkin said in a news release last week. "We are working with other impacted states, as well as our federal partners, to locate the source as quickly as possible. We will, of course, be sharing that information as it is learned."
Amy Reel, a state Health Department spokeswoman, said officials are withholding the farm's name to better protect consumers.
"We don't want to narrow the public's focus when there could be multiple sources," she said. Those sources could include other growers or distributors, she said.
The outbreak has killed two people in Kentucky and caused illnesses in 20 states.
It comes a year after a listeria outbreak caused by tainted melons from a farm in Colorado killed at least 30 people and sickened 146.
Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who represents more than 40 victims from the listeria outbreak, said authorities' refusal to name the farm that recalled its cantaloupes last week is a disservice to both consumers and other growers.
"If they know where that cantaloupe came from, that farm should not only be notifying the public itself, but the restaurants and stores where that product went should be named, as well," he said. "It doesn't help when the public is left in the dark."
Outbreaks among cantaloupe occur more often than among most other fruits for two reasons, said Dan Egel, a plant pathologist with the Purdue Extension based in Vincennes, Ind. First, its rough, porous skin is an easy hiding place for bacteria such as salmonella. Second, cantaloupe grows on the ground, where it's easier to pick up dirt and germs.
Although people don't eat the skin, knives used to cut cantaloupes can contaminate the fruit's interior, he said.
Salmonella is found in the intestines of several animals and in the skin of some. It can be transferred to fruit and vegetables in any number of ways. Most people infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection, according to health officials.
Elizabeth Maynard, a horticulture specialist with the Purdue Extension, said outbreaks such as this tend to hit growers in the wallet.
"You do definitely tend to see a decrease in price and demand," she said.
Indiana growers earned nearly $6.2 million from cantaloupe in 2010, with most of the activity concentrated in the southwestern corner of the state, according to the most recent information available from the USDA.
"It may not show up as a big blip on the big agriculture picture for Indiana," Maynard said. But, "There are some growers for whom it's a major crop."
Sarah Frey Talley, president of Frey Farms, which grows cantaloupe in Indiana and elsewhere, said no state or federal officials have contacted her company nor has it been named as a potential source.
"For many of the growers, the cantaloupe season is pretty much over," she said. But that doesn't mean the outbreak won't cause some pain financially.
"The stigma can carry over," she said.