Death, illness toll could rise from listeria outbreak in cantaloupes
What is already the deadliest outbreak of food-borne disease since 1998, is likely to get even worse, according to officials monitoring the listeria-tainted infestation of cantaloupes that has spread to 18 states.
As of Thursday morning, 13 deaths had been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that number is likely to increase because of two factors-- results expected from ongoing testing of those suspected in listeria deaths, and the long shelf life for contamination by the bacteria. A person can fall ill as late as two months after eating some contaminated melon.
“This is the deadliest outbreak of a food borne disease that we've identified in more than a decade,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based CDC said this week.
“We do anticipate there will be a rising number of cases in the days and weeks to come,” Frieden said.
So far, 13 deaths have been confirmed from listeria linked to a Colorado cantaloupe farm. Four deaths have been reported in New Mexico; two each in Colorado and Texas; and one in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
At least 72 cases of people infected with the four outbreak-associated strains of Listeria monocytogenes have been reported to CDC from 18 states.
Colorado with 15 illnesses and New Mexico with 10 lead the pack of states which includes: California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
Authorities have traced the outbreak to cantaloupe fields operated by Jensen Farms in Colorado. It was unclear how the bacteria got into the melons, or if the bacteria just remained outside and were transmitted to people who did a poor job of washing and storing the fruit.
The farm voluntarily recalled its 2011 cantaloupe harvest in September. Colorado is the nation’s fifth-largest producer of cantaloupes.
-- Michael Muskal
Photo: Owner Eric Jensen examines cantaloupe on the Jensen Farms in Colorado on Wednesday. More than 300,000 cases of cantaloupe grown on the Jensen Farms have been recalled after a listeria outbreak. Officials said more illnesses and possibly more deaths may be linked to the outbreak. Credit: Ed Andrieski / Associated Press