What is listeria? And what can I do about it?

Dear Johnnie: I am thoroughly confused and disappointed about the information that the public is getting about listeria.

The TV reports tell us to wash cantaloupe with soap and water, and dry the skin before cutting. We are told if the cantaloupe lies in the fridge, listeria is there, too, so clean the fridge. Clean with what? Just soap and water? Clorox? What?

So, if listeria is on the fridge shelf and I lay an onion, tomato and green pepper beside it, do they also have listeria?

In this Sept. 28, 2011, file photo, cantaloupes rot in the afternoon heat on a field on the Jensen Farms near Holly, Colo. Pools of water on the floor and old, hard-to-clean equipment at the farm's cantaloupe-packing facility were probably to blame for the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in 25 years, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011. Government investigators found positive samples of listeria bacteria on equipment in the Jensen Farms packing facility and on fruit that had been held there. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

When we buy cantaloupe in the store, is it on our hands and in the cart? When we choose the onion, tomato and green pepper, are we transferring the listeria to the produce?

What really is listeria? How did it end up in the Jensen farm, but not a neighboring farm? How do we know if it is or is not at the farmers market or in my garden?

What exactly does listeria do to a person to kill them? Destroy the brain, the blood, the what? The public is getting no real details or information.

Now listeria is in some romaine lettuce from California. I wash my lettuce, but not with soap.

Who is trying to keep the public in the dark? The government?

This was not a deliberate act by Jensen farms. It happened. But how did listeria choose that farm? — Confused

Dear Confused: I believe that your 15 questions are a record for a letter to Johnnie. Good thing they all are legitimate questions.

I’ll answer your questions and concerns mostly in the order you brought them up.

You can clean your refrigerator “the way you normally clean your refrigerator,” said Ann Zander, family and consumer science agent at the CSU Extension office in Longmont.

“You can use water with a little bit of baking soda, or vinegar with baking soda,” she said. “You don’t have to go the soap route.”

The point is to wash the bacteria away. No need to leave a soapy film behind.

Yes, listeria can be transferred from one fruit or vegetable to another. And it can be transferred from fruit to your hands, to the handle of your shopping cart, to other fruit, and so on.

“Listeria is all around us,” Zander said. “You cannot smell it or taste it, but it is all over.”

Dr. Patricia Gill, infectious disease specialist at Longmont Clinic, was more specific. “Listeria is a bacterium found in the soil and in animal feces and contaminated water.”

As we learned this week, FDA investigators believe the listeria came not from the field at Jensen farm but from the farm’s packaging facility. Used, dirty equipment and hard-to-clean floors could have harbored the bacteria, they said.

And yes, listeria can be at the farmers market and in your garden, too, Zander said.

“Raw milk may also become contaminated,” Gill wrote to Johnnie, “resulting in infection in those who drink unpasteurized milk or eat soft cheeses. Improperly processed deli meats and hot dogs may also become contaminated.”

Listeria survives refrigeration, even freezing, she said.

Listeria affects you if you ingest it.

“From the intestine, it enters cells, multiplies and spreads to other cells,” Gill wrote. “People who have normal immune systems usually have few symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, mild fever) as their immune systems stop the organism from spreading beyond the GI tract. People who are immunocompromised are often not able to arrest the spread of the bacteria, which then gets into the bloodstream (blood stream infection, sepsis) or spinal fluid (meningitis.) These more invasive infections can cause death. The list of people with immune compromise is long: elderly, newborns, pregnant women, HIV infection, transplant patients, people on immunosuppressive medications like cancer chemotherapy or medications for autoimmune illness or inflammatory bowel disease.”

This all sounds scary, I know. But, as Zander said, “(listeria) is not something to be afraid of. It’s something we can do something about.”

You can wash. Wash your fruits and vegetables under running water, Zander emphasized. This carries away the microorganisms. No need for soap. With a rough-skinned fruit such as cantaloupe, use a scrub brush. Wash your kitchen surfaces before and after preparing food. Wash your hands. Wash. Wash. Wash.

Confused, there’s no government conspiracy. Just people trying to track down a microscopic organism, which is not a simple thing to do.

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