Health officials say at least 15 people have died and 84 people in 19 states have become ill from a listeria outbreak linked to tainted cantaloupes from Colorado.
According to state health officials, none of the deaths or illnesses have been in South Carolina and none of the contaminated melons have been found in the state, but the outbreak still has many Grand Strand residents concerned.
Richard Ronan of Surfside Beach said he takes extra care when shopping for produce these days. "I'm very concerned about the cantaloupe that I buy and then I make sure I take them home and scrub them down with soap and water, which I normally don't do," Ronan said.
Ronan went shopping for produce at Lee's Farmers Market in Murrells Inlet Monday, which he said is usually a good source for fresh vegetables, but he added he doesn't completely trust raw produce from any source these days. "I'm just more conscious of cleaning all my vegetables that I buy, no matter where they're from."
The owner of the farmer's market said since the outbreak began last month, he's been getting questions from many of his wholesale and retail customers about the source of the cantaloupes he sells.
" E very day, we got people asking where they're from, why is it from, what happened," said Scott Lee. He said his cantaloupes come from a farm in California; the tainted cantaloupes have been traced to a single farm in Colorado.
Lee said, as with all retailers, his out-of-season fruits and vegetables must be purchased from packers in warmer climates, but he purchases in-season produce from local farmers, helping to insure their quality. "We've been out to the farms, we've seen their operation, we've seen their sanitary-ness, their tractors, the people they work."
Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria that can cause a serious infection caused by eating food that has been contaminated, according to the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control.
DHEC public information officer Adam Myrick said those at greatest risk from the infection include pregnant women, infant children and adults with weakened immune systems. "Sometimes, though, healthy adults and children can get infected with it as well, but it's a very serious health concern right now and of course, it's in the headlines right now with the cantaloupes."
Myrick said the bacteria is found in soil and water. Vegetables can become contaminated by contact with the soil or from manure that's used as fertilizer. Thorough cleaning of fruits and vegetables before eating them is the best way for people to avoid getting sick from listeria, Myrick said.
Other food safety tips include avoiding cross contamination by keeping uncooked meats separate from fresh vegetables and thoroughly washing hands, cooking utensils and cutting boards, Myrick said.
People who get sick from listeria might experience fever, muscle aches and sometimes nausea or diarrhea. Myrick said there is up to a two month incubation period for symptoms of the infection to occur. But healthy adults who suspect they may have been exposed to the bacteria need not seek immediate tests or treatment, simply because it's usually not necessary.
"Most of the time, most people who come into contact with the bacteria don't require any treatment other than just rest and lots of fluids."
Antibiotics may be given to pregnant women and babies who are infected with listeria, he said.