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Death toll from listeria-tainted cantaloupes hits 29

November 3, 2011 |  3:32 pm

The death toll from listeria-contaminated cantaloupes has reached 29, making it the deadliest food-borne outbreak in this country since at least 1985, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an update on its website, the CDC said that as of Nov. 1, 139 people in 28 states had been infected in the outbreak, attributed to cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado. The fruit was voluntarily recalled on Sept. 14 and probably hasn’t been on shelves for weeks, but the toll has kept rising as new laboratory tests have been completed.

According to the agency, reports of the illnesses began July 31 and ran until Oct. 21. The age of those infected ranged from younger than 1 to 96, with a median of 77. Most of those found to be ill were older than 60.

Fifty-seven percent were female. Five of the illnesses were related to a pregnancy; two were diagnosed in newborns and three were diagnosed in pregnant women. One miscarriage has also been reported, the CDC said.

Determining which food-borne outbreak is more deadly -- this one or the 1985 outbreak -- depends on how the information is ordered.

That event, the previous deadliest outbreak that the CDC has recorded, was in California. Then, listeria-tainted cheese killed 28 adults and children; but in addition, 20 miscarriages and stillbirths were reported, CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said in a telephone interview.

The CDC began keeping records of outbreaks in 1973, she said.

Other literature, including textbooks, identifies the deadliest food-borne illness as a typhoid outbreak in the winter of 1924-1925 in New York City. The illnesses were caused by eating raw oysters, and about 150 people died. About 1,500 people reportedly were sickened.


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Photo: The cantaloupe-processing plant for Jensen Farms is shown in October.  Pools of water on the floor and old equipment used at the cantaloupe packing facility were probably to blame for the listeria outbreak, according to a report released by the Food and Drug Administration. Credit: Ed Andrieski/Associated Press