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Two Mississippi residents are among the 141 victims of this year’s cantaloupe-linked Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak. Only one of the Mississippians reported having consumed cantaloupe prior to becoming ill, according to Jim Newkirk of the Mississippi State Department of Health’s Office of Communications.

And that person purchased whole cantaloupe from Wal-Mart.

Bloomberg news reported on August 18th that Wal-Mart had withdrawn Indiana cantaloupes from its stores.

Neither of the two Mississippi outbreak victims was hospitalized, and no additional cases are currently under investigation in that state. The confirmed cases were reported from Rankin and Itawamba counties. Rankin County is east of Jackson, in the center of the state; Itawamba County is in Mississippi’s northeast corner.

As of August 17th, CDC reported that 141 outbreak cases of Salmonella Typhimurium had been documented in 20 US states. The agency expects to update those numbers later this week, according to CDC spokesperson Lola Russell.

While all of the 141 outbreak victims were infected with the same strain of Salmonella Typhimurium, only 75% (18 of 24) of those interviewed reported having consumed cantaloupe before becoming ill. Neither California victim was exposed to cantaloupe – or to other melons – and neither travelled to the hardest hit states (Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois). Only two of Iowa’s seven outbreak victims ate cantaloupe.

Ronald Owens of the California Department of Public Health offered this explanation when contacted by eFoodAlert:

It is not uncommon in these outbreak investigations to occasionally identify people who were infected by a similar strain of bacteria to the outbreak strain but who are considered “background” cases that are not related to an outbreak. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are about 10-15 background cases with this particular strain pattern that are detected each month.

This illustrates the difficulty faced by epidemiologists and public health officials in detecting and defining a foodborne disease outbreak that is caused by a relatively common genetic strain of bacteria. It’s far easier to recognize a needle in a haystack than to distinguish between two pieces of hay. In these circumstances, CDC defines an outbreak case as one that is a genetic match to the outbreak strain and falls within the outbreak timeframe.

Neither CDC nor FDA is yet prepared to identify the southwestern Indiana farm that is believed to be the source of the contaminated cantaloupes. No public recall has been announced.

CDC’s Advice to Consumers, Retailers and Others (as of August 17, 2012)

Contaminated cantaloupe may still be in grocery stores and in consumers’ homes.

  • Consumers who recently purchased cantaloupes grown in southwestern Indiana are advised not to eat them and discard any remaining cantaloupe.
    • Based on the available information, consumers can continue to purchase and eat cantaloupes that did not originate in southwestern Indiana.
    • Many cantaloupes have the growing area identified with a sticker on the fruit. If no sticker is present, consumers should inquire about the source. When in doubt, throw it out.
    • Consumers who are buying or have recently bought cantaloupe should ask their retailer if the cantaloupe was grown in southwestern Indiana.
  • Cantaloupes should be disposed of in a closed plastic bag placed in a sealed trash can. This will prevent people or animals from eating them.
  • Dispose of any cantaloupes that you think may be contaminated. Washing them will not completely eliminate the contamination. Cutting, slicing and dicing may also transfer harmful bacteria from the fruit’s surface to the fruit’s flesh.
  • Retailers and food service operators should not sell or serve cantaloupe from southwestern Indiana.
  • Persons who think they might have become ill from eating possibly contaminated cantaloupes should consult their health care providers.
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