From Our 2011 Archives

Death Toll Rises From Listeria in Cantaloupes

4 Known Deaths, 3 More Suspected From Listeria-Contaminated Cantaloupes

By Daniel J. DeNoon
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 20, 2011 -- Four people are confirmed dead -- with three more deaths under investigation -- in the ongoing outbreak of listeria food poisoning from contaminated cantaloupes.

The CDC's official count has grown to 35 cases in 10 states. In every case where medical records are available, people infected with the outbreak strain of listeria have been hospitalized.

One person in Oklahoma, one in Colorado, and two in New Mexico have died. The Denver Post reports that the New Mexico health department suspects two more deaths are linked to the outbreak. The Springfield, Mo., health department is investigating two more suspected cases. One of those patients has died.

All cases have occurred since Aug. 4. Illnesses since Aug. 31 may not yet have been reported.

People sickened by the outbreak strains of listeria range in age from 35 to 96 with a median age of 81. Most of those who became ill are over 60 or have other risk factors -- such as pregnancy or weakened immunity -- for serious listeria illness.

The FDA reports that one of the three listeria strains linked to the outbreak has been cultured from Jensen Farms' Rocky Ford brand cantaloupes from a Denver-area store and from equipment and cantaloupes at the Jensen Farms packing plant.

No other farms, even in the Colorado's Rocky Ford growing region, have been linked to the outbreak.

Jensen Farms has recalled all cantaloupes shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to at least 17 states. Further distribution may have occurred.

The whole cantaloupes may have either of two stickers:

  • A green and white sticker that reads: Product of USA -- Frontera Produce -- Colorado Fresh -- Rocky Ford Cantaloupe
  • A gray, yellow, and green sticker that reads: Jensen Farms -- Sweet Rocky Fords

If you encounter unlabeled cantaloupes, you should ask your grocer where it came from.

If you have one of the recalled cantaloupes, be sure to dispose of it in a closed plastic bag in a sealed trash can to prevent people or animals from eating them.

If you've eaten some of a recalled cantaloupe and have not become sick, do not assume the cantaloupe is safe. Dispose of it immediately.

The FDA says you should not to try to wash bacteria from the recalled cantaloupes, as both the inside and outside of the melons may be contaminated.

Listeria monocytogenes bacteria cause a disease called listeriosis. The bacteria are commonly found in the soil, where they eat dead plant matter. When consumed, the bacteria change their nature and become able to enter cells. Unless controlled by immune responses, they can escape the gut and enter the bloodstream.

Blood infection with listeria is extremely serious. The bacteria can enter the brain and nervous system, causing disability or death. Listeria can also infect a developing fetus, causing miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or death of the newborn.

How to Avoid Listeria

As contaminated cantaloupes may still be in grocery stores or in people's homes, the CDC has issued this advice:

  • People at high risk for listeriosis, including older adults, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women, should not eat cantaloupes marketed as coming from the Rocky Ford region of Colorado.
  • People who have cantaloupes in their homes can check the label or inquire at the store where they purchased it to determine if the fruit was marketed as coming from the Rocky Ford region of Colorado.
  • Listeriosis primarily affects older adults, people with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, and newborns. People who think they might have become ill from eating possibly contaminated cantaloupes should consult their doctor immediately.
  • Cantaloupes marketed as coming from the Rocky Ford region should be disposed of in a closed plastic bag placed in a sealed trash can. This will prevent people or animals from eating them.

As other foods besides cantaloupes can carry listeria, the CDC recommends these general steps to avoid listeriosis:

  • Rinse raw produce, such as fruits and vegetables, thoroughly under running tap water before eating. Dry the produce with a clean cloth or paper towel before cutting them up.
  • Thoroughly cook raw meat and poultry.
  • Heat hot dogs, deli meats, and cold cuts until they are steaming hot just before serving.
  • Do not drink raw (unpasteurized) milk and do not eat fresh, soft cheeses that have unpasteurized milk in them, especially Mexican-style cheeses like queso fresco.
  • Be sure that your refrigerator is at or below 40 degrees F and your freezer is at or below 0 degrees F by using a refrigerator thermometer.

SOURCES: News release, FDA.News release, CDC.Denver Post, Sept. 20, 2011.News release, Springfield, Mo., health department.Sleator, R.D. Microbiology, 2009; vol 155: pp 2463-2475. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.




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