Australia checking whether contaminated rockmelons had been exported

SYDNEY Australian authorities said yesterday they were checking whether rock melons had been exported from a farm where fruit contaminated with listeria was found to have killed three elderly people and caused illness in at least 12 others.

The New South Wales Food Authority said the company whose rock melons had been contaminated with listeria is an exporter of produce.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources told Reuters via e-mail that it was investigating whether any rock melons, also called cantaloupes, had been exported.

"Australia will be issuing notifications in line with international obligations when affected countries are identified," the department said in the e-mail.

It declined to name possible export destinations, or if any had been recalled, while the investigation was underway.

Australian rock melons with an export value of about US20 million (S26.4 million) per year go to Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and Brunei, the Australian Melon Industry says in a report on its website.

The suspect cantaloupes were found to have been farmed at Cicerone in the eastern state of New South Wales. But all government departments contacted refused to name the company that is the focus of the health scare.

Ms Dianne Overfull, industry development manager for the Australian Melon Association, told Reuters by text message that the grower had issued a trade level recall, meaning that its produce should not be on sale anywhere, either inside or outside the country.

"There is none of the produce from the implicated farm now in domestic or export markets," she said.

State health officials have confirmed they began investigating the listeria outbreak on Feb 19.

Listeriosis does not cause illness in many people but it can result in serious sickness and death in those with weakened immune systems.