The recent salmonella outbreak linked to cantaloupe wasn’t the first and won’t be the last — no matter what growers and packers do — because of the nature of the fruit, according to public health officials and researchers.

Data compiled from January 1990 through March this year by Kansas State University food scientist and pathobiologist Doug Powell documents 37 foodborne illness outbreaks related to cantaloupe. Their impact ranged from a high of 400 illnesses reported during a June 1991 outbreak that hit 23 states and four Canadian provinces to a low of two cases reported in December 2001 in a localized outbreak in Oregon.

Senior epidemiologist William Keene of the Oregon Public Health Division said the dilemma for health officials and produce companies in virtually all outbreaks is a question of timing.

“By the time a source is identified the food is no longer available to consumers because it’s already off the shelves and probably been eaten or thrown away,” Keene said March 30.

“One reason this outbreak was so small is that all (of the precautions) Del Monte was doing were pretty effective.”

The first reported case of Salmonella Panama in the recent outbreak, which only had 13 confirmed cases as of March 29, was reported Feb. 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keene said Oregon health officials started getting information about a cluster of illnesses after a Feb. 2 church supper where fresh cantaloupe was eaten. Eventually confirmed cases also were reported in California, Colorado, Washington and Maryland.

Keene said the purchase date range was from Jan. 30 to Feb. 17. By the time salmonella was confirmed, none of the cantaloupe eventually linked to the outbreak was still in stores. The outbreak seems to have burned out, he said, with the most recent case being reported March 18.

Del Monte Fresh Produce officials recalled about 60,000 cantaloupes March 22. Almost 5,000 cases of cantaloupe shipped from Del Monte’s Asuncion Mita farm in Guatemala were recalled.

Keene said the farm has about 1,440 acres. Of the “millions” of cantaloupe harvested there Keene said the number likely responsible for the illnesses, plus the recalled melons, add up to a miniscule percentage of the crop.