At least 13 people are dead in the wake of the deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade after listeria was traced to cantaloupe grown in Colorado. According to officials, the death toll attributed to infected cantaloupe is expected to rise; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced that 72 illnesses, including the 13 deaths, have been attributed to the listeria outbreak. Additionally, three other deaths are being investigated as possibly caused by the same outbreak.
Currently, the listeria outbreak is the third deadliest food outbreak in U.S. history. The CDC reports that every year in the U.S., 48 million people get sick from tainted food; of these, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Illnesses attributed to listeria have been reported in 18 states. States that the reported the most illnesses were Colorado (15 reported illnesses), Texas (14 illnesses), New Mexico (10 illnesses), and Oklahoma (8 illnesses). So far, deaths have been confirmed in Colorado, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Health officials in Wyoming, Kansas, and New Mexico are currently investigating deaths that could be linked to the outbreak.
The listeria outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado. The farm recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month after reports of listeria were reported. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), who is investigating the outbreak, reported that listeria was present in cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms as well as the farm’s packing facilities in Granada, Colorado.
The FDA has not yet released any information as to how the outbreak might have happened. Cantaloupe is particularly susceptible to foodborne illnesses due to its rough outer skin and soft interior. In addition, knives used to cut cantaloupe can transfer bacteria from the outside of the fruit when they reach the center.
The contaminated cantaloupe, which is from the brand Rocky Ford, were shipped between July 29th to September 10th to states all across the country. Affected cantaloupes could have been marked with several different stickers, including ones that read “Colorado Grown,” “Distributed by Frontera Produce,” or “Sweet Rocky Fords,” although not all the affected cantaloupes had a sticker.
Approximately 1600 serious cases of listeria are reported every year, 260 of which are fatal. The illness can grow at a variety of temperatures, including room temperature and refrigerator temperature and is most commonly found in cheese and deli meats.
According to the CDC, an average of one out of five people who contract listeria die from the disease. Healthy adults can generally consume listeria without becoming sick; the disease most often affects pregnant women, the elderly, and anyone with a weakened immune system. Symptoms of listeria include muscle aches, fever, nausea, and diarrhea. Affected victims of the current outbreak range in age from between 35 to 96 years old, with an average age of 78.
Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC has noted that the “long incubation period” of listeria is “a real problem” due to the fact that symptoms of listeria could take more than four weeks to appear. As a result, Tauxe believes that the number of illnesses and deaths caused by the listeria outbreak could increase.
Although listeria is not commonly found in produce, the cantaloupe outbreak is not the first outbreak. In 2009, sprouts were contaminated with listeria, and in 2010 celery was found to be contaminated. An outbreak of listeria in hot dogs killed 21 people in 1998, while another outbreak traced to soft cheese killed 52 people in 1985.
To avoid the current cantaloupe outbreak, health officials are recommending that anyone who might have a contaminated cantaloupe immediately throw it away and sanitize any surface it might have touched. In addition, washing any produce thoroughly before eating is always a wise choice, whether it’s cantaloupe or any other fruit or vegetable.
Photo Credit: ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/oct96/k7388-11i.jpg