In the past few weeks there have been 15 deaths (link to Google News)and 72 illnesses caused by the listeria virus that has been found in cantaloupes that are grown in the Jensen’s Farm in Colorado. The listeria virus can be spread by water or soil contamination. Animals can carry the virus unharmed with no symptoms, but when their feces are used as manure or contaminate the local groundwater it can harm the local farms’ crops. Colorado is the fifth largest producer of cantaloupe and reportedly 2010’s harvest was worth $8 million. Fortunately for the farmers at least, the outbreak has occurred at the end of their season; but it has stigmatized the “Colorado Cantaloupe.” Local farmers in Colorado are still selling some cantaloupe mostly because their local buyers know them and know what farms have the bad cantaloupe. As for the rest of Americans that love the sweet melon, well, they are less fortunate. The Jensen farm did not label their cantaloupe to separate them from the rest; instead they labeled them “Rocky Farm cantaloupe” making them even harder to distinguish the good from the bad. There is also a problem clearly identifying what states were sold tainted cantaloupe. The Jensen Farm has released a list of states that they sold directly to, but there are also distributers that have sold them to other states. Now most people will just refuse to eat them at all, fearing that they could get sick or even die.
I think that this is a huge externality of animal farming. It is a shame that we house these animals in such a way that it causes someone’s whole way of life to collapse. Plus it’s actually causing people bodily harm and killing people in some cases. Why would anyone want that to happen to them or to their family if it could be prevented. Listeria is only caused by a bacterium called monocytogene. The problem with these bacteria is that they can grow in almost any environment; but if better care was taken of these domesticated animals then no one would have had to die. I know that this is not an extremely common virus; but with the potential for them to be carriers, I would think that someone would at least try to test their livestock at some point in their life. What if the cattle that just donated manure to the Jensen’s Farm, had been sent to the butcher or if it was a sow and was milked? There could be an even bigger epidemic!
Update: USA Today describes the results of an FDA investigation into possible causes of the outbreak, which has now claimed at least 25 lives and caused at least 125 illnesses.