An outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe is now linked to 23 deaths in the U.S., making it the deadliest known outbreak of food-borne illness in more than 25 years.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that 116 people have been sickened in the outbreak, including those who died. The number of deaths has now surpassed a 1998 outbreak of listeria in processed meats that was linked to 21 deaths. A 1985 listeria outbreak in Mexican-style soft cheeses killed 52 people.
The CDC confirmed two more deaths in Louisiana that the state had said it was investigating last week. Other deaths were reported in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming.
Colorado's Jensen Farms recalled the tainted cantaloupe last month.
Listeria-tainted cantaloupes from Colorado have now sickened 109 people and claimed 21 lives in 23 states, federal officials say.
The CDC on Friday reported new deaths in Indiana and New York and confirmed a death in Wyoming. The agency previously reported five deaths in Colorado, five in New Mexico, two in Texas, two in Kansas and one each in Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
CDC said it was also aware of one miscarriage associated with the outbreak.
The number of illnesses and deaths is expected to rise, as symptoms of listeriosis can take up to two months to show up. Louisiana said it was investigating two listeria deaths possibly related to the outbreak that aren't included in the CDC count.
The outbreak has now claimed as many lives as a 1998 outbreak of Listeria in hot dogs and possibly deli meats made by Bil Mar Foods, a subsidiary of Sara Lee Corp. That outbreak was also linked to 21 deaths. The deadliest outbreak in the U.S. before that is believed to have been Listeria in Mexican-style soft cheese in 1985. That outbreak was linked to 52 deaths.
Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month after they were linked to Listeria illnesses. They were shipped all over the U.S. but should be off store shelves by now. The last cases of cantaloupes were shipped Sept. 10, and its shelf life is about two weeks.
The FDA has said state health officials found Listeria in cantaloupes taken from Colorado grocery stores and from a victim's home that were grown at Jensen Farms. Matching strains of the bacteria were found on equipment and cantaloupe samples at Jensen Farms' packing facility in Granada, Colo.
The company said the cantaloupes were shipped to about half of U.S. states, but added that it wasn't clear just where they went because the produce has been sold and resold. Thus, many companies may not know if they bought or distributed the fruit. Fruit Fresh Up, Inc. of Depew, N.Y., issued a recall Thursday of 4,800 individual packages of cut cantaloupes, three weeks after the original recall and several days after the melons surpassed their freshness date.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said this week that the agency was still investigating the outbreak's cause. Officials said they were looking at the farm's water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things. Listeria bacteria grow in moist, muddy conditions and are often carried by animals.
CDC and FDA officials said that any cantaloupes not from Jensen Farms are safe to eat. 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.
Listeria is rare but more deadly than well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. Most healthy adults can consume Listeria with no ill effects, but it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes through to the fetus. The CDC said the median age of those sickened is 77, and most ill people are over 60 years old.
Symptoms include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.
The CDC has reported Listeria-related illness in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Colorado has the most illnesses, with 32 sickened. Texas has 16 reported illnesses, New Mexico has 13 and Oklahoma has 11.