WASHINGTON (CBS4) – More than a dozen deaths and 70 illnesses have been linked to an outbreak of listeria from tainted cantaloupe in recent weeks and federal officials warn more illness and deaths may occur.
The cantaloupes were produced by Jensen Farms in Colorado.
Jensen Farms said it shipped cantaloupes to 25 states, though the FDA has said it may be more, and illnesses have been discovered in several states that were not on the shipping list. A spokeswoman for Jensen Farms said the company’s product is often sold and resold, so they do not always know where it went.
“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “But if you can’t confirm it’s not Jensen Farms, then it’s best to throw it out.”
The recalled cantaloupes may be labeled “Colorado Grown,” ”Distributed by Frontera Produce,” ”Jensenfarms.com” or “Sweet Rocky Fords.” Not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the FDA said. The company said it shipped out more than 300,000 cases of cantaloupes that contained five to 15 melons, meaning the recall involved 1.5 million to 4.5 million pieces of fruit.
Frieden and FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said that illnesses are expected for weeks to come because the incubation period for listeria can be a month or even longer. That means that someone who ate contaminated cantaloupe last week may not get sick until next month.
Jensen Farms last shipped cantaloupes on Sept. 10. The shelf life is about two weeks.
“We will see more cases likely through October,” Hamburg said.
Sherri McGarry, a senior adviser in the FDA’s Office of Foods, said the agency is looking at the farm’s water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things in trying to figure out how the cantaloupes became contaminated. Listeria bacteria grow in moist, muddy conditions and are often carried by animals.
The health officials said this is the first known outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe. Listeria is generally found in processed meats and unpasteurized milk and cheese, though there have been a growing number of outbreaks in produce. Hamburg called the outbreak a “surprise” and said the agencies are studying it closely to find out how it happened.
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 1 in 5 who contract the disease can die from it. Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.
The CDC reported the 72 illnesses and deaths in 18 states. Cases of listeria were reported in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
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