Listeria-canteloupe outbreak could get worse, health officials warn

September 29, 2011

The listeria outbreak that has killed up to 16 people and sickened more than 70, could get worse according to health officials, who are still in the process of trying to determine where contaminated cantaloupes might have been shipped. As AP reported :

Federal health officials said Wednesday more illnesses and possibly more deaths may be linked to an outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe in coming weeks.

So far, the outbreak has caused at least 72 illnesses — including up to 16 deaths — in 18 states, making it the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in more than a decade.

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.

“If it’s not Jensen Farms, it’s OK to eat,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. “But if you can’t confirm it’s not Jensen Farms, then it’s best to throw it out.”

Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo. says 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.

While the Food and Drug Administration has said that the contaminated produce was sent to 25 states in its last accounting, a strange case of a Maryland man who fell ill has raised fears that more states might have been shipped the contaminated cantaloupe. As Tim Carman explained:

The single local victim (so far) of the listeria outbreak lived in central Maryland. He had eaten a Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe contaminated with one of four strains tied to the current outbreak, which has already caused 72 illnesses in 18 states and claimed the lives of 12 other people. Where the Maryland resident ate the strange fruit, however, remains a complete mystery.

By the Food and Drug Administration’s latest accounting, Jensen Farms, the Colorado producer traced to the tainted cantaloupe, has not shipped any of its whole cantaloupes to Maryland. Dr. Clifford Mitchell, assistant director for environmental health and food protection for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, acknowledged that officials have been contacting major food distributors to find out if the Rocky Ford fruits have entered Maryland.

“If they had any pallets or containers that were from the Colorado farm, that stuff is not making it to shelves,” Mitchell said this afternoon. At the same time, Mitchell added that the state can’t inspect every whole cantaloupe entering its borders. “I would never say it’s impossible,” Mitchell said, for Rocky Ford cantaloupes to have entered Maryland supermarkets from between July 29 and mid-September, the critical period in question. Jensen Farms voluntarily recalled its whole cantaloupes on Sept. 14.

Mitchell noted that state officials are working on the traceback of the central Maryland man who died, hoping to learn where he ate the fruit. “That is part of the ongoing investigation,” Mitchell said.

Here are some key answers about the listeria-canteloupe outbreak from Associated Press:

Q: What is listeria?

A: Listeria is a hardy bacteria found in soil and water that can be carried by animals. It is often found in processed meats because it can contaminate a processing facility and stay there for a long period of time. It is also common in unpasteurized cheeses and unpasteurized milk. It is less common in produce like cantaloupe, but there have been a couple of other listeria outbreaks in fruits and vegetables in recent years. When a person contracts the disease, it can cause fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms and even death. One in five people who have listeria can die.

Q: Am I at risk?

A: Listeria generally only affects the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and newborns whose mothers were infected before birth. The median age of victims in this outbreak is 78 years old. Healthy, younger adults and most children can usually consume listeria with no ill effects or mild illness.

More from The Washington Post

Listeria outbreak: Is fear during pregnancy preparation for parenthood?

Listeria: What you need to know

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