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Cantaloupe outbreak could be deadliest in a decade
Question of the Day
WASHINGTON (AP) - As many as 14 people have died from possible listeria illnesses traced to Colorado cantaloupes, health officials say _ a death toll that would make the food outbreak the deadliest in more than a decade.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that 55 illnesses and eight deaths were linked to the outbreak. Since then, state and local health departments in Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming have reported six additional deaths that may be linked to the tainted fruit.
Nine people died in an outbreak linked to salmonella-tainted peanuts almost three years ago. Deaths linked to the cantaloupes are expected to easily surpass that number.
Listeria is more deadly than more well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, though those outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses. Twenty-one people died in an outbreak of listeria poisoning in 1998 traced to contaminated hot dogs and possibly deli meats made by Bil Mar Foods, a subsidiary of Sara Lee Corp. Another large listeria outbreak in 1985 killed 52 people and was linked to Mexican-style soft cheese.
Listeria generally only sickens the elderly, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems. The CDC said last week that the median age of those sickened was 78.
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.”
On Sept. 21 the CDC reported illnesses in California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The agency said then that four had died in New Mexico, two had died in Colorado and one person had died in both Oklahoma and Maryland.
In the last week, state and local health departments have reported higher numbers. Officials in Texas said two deaths are linked to the outbreak and officials in Nebraska said one death there is linked to the outbreak. Officials in Kansas and Wyoming said they are investigating three additional listeria deaths that may be linked as well. The CDC has not confirmed those numbers.
Missouri and Florida have also reported new illnesses linked to the cantaloupes.
The outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., which recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month. The Food and Drug Administration said last week that it had found listeria in samples of Jensen Farms’ cantaloupes taken from a Denver-area store and on samples taken from equipment and cantaloupes at the farm’s packing facility. Tests confirmed that the samples matched strains of the disease found in those sickened.
The FDA has not released any additional details from its investigation into what caused the illnesses.
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,” “Jensenfarms.com” or “Sweet Rocky Fords.” Not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the FDA said.
Unlike many pathogens, listeria bacteria can grow at room temperatures and even refrigerator temperatures. The FDA and CDC recommend anyone who may have one of the contaminated cantaloupes throw it out immediately.
By Matt Kibbe
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