Contaminated cantaloupes carrying listeria

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According to federal health officials last week, at least 13 people are dead amid 72 sickened in 18 states in an outbreak of listeria food poisoning tied to contaminated cantaloupes.

The figures were the latest confirmed as of Monday morning, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. But they may well rise in the still-widening outbreak that now ranks as the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade. State and local health officials in Wyoming and Kansas are investigating three additional deaths that may be connected. In 1998, an outbreak of listeria infections caused by listeria-contaminated hot dogs and deli meats killed 21 people, CDC records show. Another large listeria outbreak in 1985 killed 52 people and was linked to Mexican-style soft cheese.

Most of the deaths and illnesses in the outbreak tied to whole cantaloupes grown and shipped by Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo., have targeted the elderly, pointing out the lethal potential of infections from Listeria monocytogenes in vulnerable populations. “It's basically a feature of listeriosis itself. It affects people who have other counts against them,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of food borne, waterborne and fungal infections at the CDC. “It's just a severe infection.” Victims range in age from 35 to 96 years, with an average age of 78. But most of the infections from four outbreak strains of listeria have occurred in people older than 60, the report said.

CDC officials now think the illnesses began several days sooner than previously thought, with illnesses starting on or after July 31. People can become ill up to several weeks after eating food contaminated with listeria.

Cases of listeria were reported in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The most illnesses were reported in Colorado, which has seen 15 sickened. Fourteen illnesses were reported in Texas, 10 in New Mexico and eight in Oklahoma. Deaths have been reported in eight states, including four in New Mexico, two in Colorado, two in Texas and one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Listeria is a common bacterium that typically causes mild illness in healthy people, but can cause severe illness in older people and those with compromised immune systems. It also can cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women and severe infections in new babies. Listeria infections lead to about 1,600 serious illnesses each year and about 260 people die, according to the CDC. Symptoms of listeria include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms. Victims often become incapacitated and unable to speak.

While it's not clear yet clear exactly how the cantaloupes became contaminated, the fruit is susceptible because of its rough, porous skin and soft, succulent interior. In addition, knives can carry bacteria from the outside of the melon into the flesh when they slice through.

Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC says the number of illnesses and deaths will probably grow in coming weeks because the symptoms of listeria don't always show up right away. It can take four weeks or more for a person to fall ill after eating food contaminated with listeria. “That long incubation period is a real problem,” Tauxe said. “People who ate a contaminated food two weeks ago or even a week ago could still be falling sick weeks later.”

The Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms were shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.

The recalled cantaloupe may be labeled "Colorado Grown," `'Distributed by Frontera Produce," `'" or "Sweet Rocky Fords." Not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the FDA said.

Despite the recall, FDA officials are concerned that the Rocky Ford melons may remain in consumers' homes. Listeria can survive and grow even when refrigerated, so any suspect fruit should be discarded, officials say.

CDC estimates that about 48 million people in the U.S. each year get sick from tainted food, with about 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 deaths.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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