If you’ve ever cooked with me, you know I’m a pretty strict when it comes to cleaning. I wash herbs in a salad spinner (there’s a lot more grit clinging to them than you might think). I wipe down the stove every night, and you can bet your bottom dollar I don’t rinse chicken in the sink (that’s how bacteria spreads—pat that bad boy with paper towels instead). While it’s fairly intuitive to rinse dirt-caked herbs or wipe a grease-spattered stove, there are other items in the kitchen that don’t proclaim their need to be cleaned so loudly.
Take melons, for example. When you bring a watermelon, cantaloupe, or honeydew home, you may be so excited to bite into that sweet, juicy fruit that you grab a butcher knife and start slicing the moment you plop it onto the counter. You really, really, shouldn’t do that. Melons are like bananas in that they’re encased in a suit of armor-skin, but they need to be washed before you slice into them. That's because the moment you slice through the skin into flesh, whatever was lurking on the outside of the melon can contaminate the inside.
As they roll around in food trucks and grocery store displays, innumerable hands in various degrees of cleanliness touch the melons over and over, spreading bacteria. But an average dirty hand touching the fruit is the least of your worries. In 2011, a listeria outbreak affected cantaloupe that traveled to 28 states, sickening 147 people. The outbreak was likely caused from the fruit coming in contact with contaminated water, and because cantaloupe skin is wrinkled, the bacteria clung to it.
The best way to avoid getting sick from eating melon is to buy one with no punctures that could potentially spread bacteria from the skin into the flesh. Roll the melon around and check to make sure there are no soft spots, indents, or leaking areas.
Once you’ve picked a good melon, wash it, and don’t let anyone make fun of you for doing this at the family barbeque. If your sister says you’re being silly or your dad says you’re overly cautious, instead of protesting, simply show them the CDC report or a list of listeria symptoms—summer fun!
To wash a melon, the FDA recommends placing the melon in a sink and rinsing off all dirt with cool water, then scrubbing the melon with a firm produce brush. Though the FDA says you should sanitize all cutting materials when you’ve finished, other people suggest scrubbing the melon with antibacterial soap (just make sure you rinse all that soap before slicing) or vegetable wash as well.
Finally, keep in mind that sliced melon is moist and sweet, which is a breeding ground for bacteria. Don't leave sliced melon out on a table in warm weather for more than two hours, after which it should be stored in the fridge in an airtight container.
Some folks who are particularly at risk for illness, like pregnant people or those with weakened immune systems, should still be especially cautious when eating melon even after it’s washed. Check with your doctor to be extra-sure.