Listeria mystery: It's not clear where the central Maryland man who died of listeria ate his tainted fruit. (Kevin Clark/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The single local victim (so far) of the listeria outbreak lived in central Maryland. He had eaten a Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe contaminated with one of four strains tied to the current outbreak, which has already caused 72 illnesses in 18 states and claimed the lives of 12 other people. Where the Maryland resident ate the strange fruit, however, remains a complete mystery.

By the Food and Drug Administration’s latest accounting, Jensen Farms, the Colorado producer traced to the tainted cantaloupe, has not shipped any of its whole cantaloupes to Maryland. Dr. Clifford Mitchell, assistant director for environmental health and food protection for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, acknowledged that officials have been contacting major food distributors to find out if the Rocky Ford fruits have entered Maryland.

“If they had any pallets or containers that were from the Colorado farm, that stuff is not making it to shelves,” Mitchell said this afternoon. At the same time, Mitchell added that the state can’t inspect every whole cantaloupe entering its borders. “I would never say it’s impossible,” Mitchell said, for Rocky Ford cantaloupes to have entered Maryland supermarkets from between July 29 and mid-September, the critical period in question. Jensen Farms voluntarily recalled its whole cantaloupes on Sept. 14.

Mitchell noted that state officials are working on the traceback of the central Maryland man who died, hoping to learn where he ate the fruit. “That is part of the ongoing investigation,” Mitchell said.

A quick survey of major supermarket chains found no Rocky Ford whole cantaloupes on local shelves. Spokespeople for Food Lion, Bloom, Giant and Kroger all indicated that their stores were not affected by the cantaloupe recall (although a spokesman for Kroger said that some City Markets and King Soopers stores in Colorado were affected among the Kroger family of supermarkets).

A Whole Foods spokeswoman said that early in the listeria scare, back in early September when the FDA notified retailers that Rocky Ford cantaloupes had been implicated in the outbreak, the chain had found such fruit in stores in the Rocky Mountain and southwest regions. Later, when the FDA pointed the finger at Jensen Farms, Whole Foods realized that none of its cantaloupes were purchased from that producer.

Representatives from Costco and Safeway did not immediately return calls for comment.

The apparent lack of the tainted fruit in the Washington area should not cause locals to relax, said Mitchell with the Maryland Health and Mental Hygiene. He echoes much of what the FDA has been saying about the listeria outbreak: Find out from the supermarkets exactly where they get their cantaloupes.

In fact, the FDA has a whole laundry list of precautions for consumers to follow. It also cautions consumers to be wary of processed cantaloupe, chunks of melon that could be part of salads and fruit cups:

Because some of the wholesalers and distributors may have further distributed the recalled cantaloupes to food processors, it is possible that additional products that contain cantaloupe from Jensen Farms could be recalled. Should FDA discover any information that contaminated cantaloupe is still in the marketplace, the Agency will work with the necessary parties to facilitate voluntary recalls of the product and take the necessary steps to protect the safety of the public’s health.

What’s more, Jensen Farms had shipped whole Rocky Ford cantaloupes to Virginia during the critical period. So far only one person has contracted listeria from the tainted fruit in Virginia. But as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, symptoms can take four or more weeks to manifest, which means that more cases could appear in the Commonwealth in the coming days.

The FDA warns that listeria can grow even in refrigerators. As a precaution the FDA suggests:

* Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.

* Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards and countertops; then sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used.

* Wipe up spills in the refrigerator immediately and clean the refrigerator regularly.

* Always wash hands with warm water and soap following the cleaning and sanitization process.

BlogPost has other information on who is generally affected by listeria and its symptoms.