WASHINGTON – An outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe is now linked to 23 deaths, making it the deadliest known outbreak of foodborne illness in the U.S. in more than 25 years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that 116 people have been sickened in the outbreak, including those who died. The number of deaths has now surpassed a 1998 outbreak of listeria in processed meats that was linked to 21 deaths. A 1985 listeria outbreak in Mexican-style soft cheeses killed 52 people.
The tainted Colorado cantaloupes should be off store shelves by now, as they were recalled mid-September and their shelf life is about two weeks. But the number of deaths may continue to grow, as the symptoms of listeria can take up to two months to appear.
The CDC on Wednesday confirmed two more deaths in Louisiana that the state had said it was investigating last week. Other deaths have been reported in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming. Colorado and New Mexico reported five deaths each.
Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month after they were linked to the listeria illnesses. The Food and Drug Administration, which is investigating the outbreak, has said state health officials found listeria in cantaloupes taken from Colorado grocery stores and from a victim's home that were grown at Jensen Farms. Matching strains of the disease were found on equipment and cantaloupe samples at Jensen Farms' packing facility in Granada, Colo.
The company has said it shipped the cantaloupes to about half the states, but added that it wasn't sure where the cantaloupes went because they have been sold and resold. Thus, many companies may not even know whether they bought or distributed the fruit.
The FDA is still investigating the cause of the outbreak. Officials have said they were looking at the farm's water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things to figure out the source of the problem. Listeria bacteria grow in moist, muddy conditions and often are carried by animals.
Government health officials said this was the first known outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe. Listeria generally is found in processed meats and unpasteurized milk and cheese, though there have been a growing number of outbreaks in produce.
Listeria is rare but more deadly than well-known pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. The CDC said the median age of those sickened is 78, and most ill people are over 60 years old.
It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes through to the fetus. CDC said it is also aware of one miscarriage associated with the outbreak.
Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.
The CDC has reported illnesses in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Colorado has the most illnesses with 34, while Texas has reported 17, New Mexico 13 and Oklahoma 11.