As many as 16 people have reported died from possible listeria illnesses traced to Colorado cantaloupes, the deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade.
There are also 72 illnesses, including 13 deaths, are concerned to the tainted fruit plus 3 died cases may be connected in 18 states, making it the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in more than a decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday.
New Mexico officials said Tuesday they are investigating a fifth death, while health authorities in Kansas and Wyoming said they too are investigating additional deaths possibly linked to the tainted fruit.
Listeria is more deadly than 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 the median age of those sickened is 78 and that one in five who contract the disease can die.
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.
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 and clean and sanitize any surfaces it may have touched.
About 800 cases of listeria are found in the United States each year, according to CDC, and there usually are three or four outbreaks. Most of these are traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common.
While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes through to the fetus. Dr. Tauxe of the CDC said the type of listeria linked to the cantaloupes is not one that is commonly associated with pregnancy-associated illnesses, however. State and federal health authorities have not definitively linked any miscarriages, stillbirths or infant illnesses to the current outbreak.
Symptoms of listeria include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms. Victims often become incapacitated and unable to speak.
The heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said consumers who have cantaloupes produced by Jensen Farms in Colorado should throw them out. If they are not sure where the fruit is from, they shouldn’t eat it.
Neither the government nor Jensen Farms has supplied a list of retailers who may have sold the fruit. Officials say consumers should ask retailers about the origins of their cantaloupe. If they still aren’t sure, they should get rid of it.
CDC on cantaloupe outbreak: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/listeriosis/092111.html
FDA on cantaloupe recall: http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/CORENetwork/ucm272372.htm
Center for Science and the Public Interest, “Super Safe Your Kitchen”: http://www.cspinet.org/new/pdf/safekitchen.pdf
Find Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MCJalonick
AP Washington – cbsnews.com