Bloomberg News

Death Toll From Contaminated Cantaloupe May Rise, CDC Says

September 28, 2011

(Updates with comment from Hamburg in fourth paragraph.)

Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. listeria outbreak linked to tainted cantaloupes may continue to sicken people through October, and the number of deaths may rise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The outbreak is the deadliest caused by contaminated food in more than 10 years, CDC Director Thomas Frieden said today on a conference call. More illnesses are likely to occur because it can take more than two months for people to become sick after eating the tainted fruit, Barbara Mahon, deputy chief of the CDC’s Enteric Disease branch, said on the call.

Laboratory tests so far have linked 72 illnesses and at least 13 deaths to cantaloupes grown by Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado, Mahon said. Jensen recalled the Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes on Sept. 14, and the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers not to eat them. The agency is working with Colorado health officials to learn how the contamination occurred, said FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

“This outbreak has been a tough one for all involved,” Hamburg said on the conference call. “This is the first outbreak we’ve seen with listeria” linked to cantaloupe, “and that is a surprise.”

Of 10 previous outbreaks linked to tainted cantaloupe in the past decade, seven were caused by salmonella and three were from norovirus, Frieden said.

‘Unusual Bacteria’

“Listeria is an unusual bacteria,” Frieden said on the conference call. “The incubation period is one to three weeks on average, and can be two months or more, so there is a continued risk. If you have cantaloupe in your refrigerator that you are in doubt about the source of, it’s best to throw it out.”

Listeria, a bacterium often found in soil and water, sickens about 1,600 people and kills about 260 in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC website. Animals can carry the germ without appearing ill. Pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are among those at greatest risk for listeria infections. Symptoms include fever and diarrhea.

In 1998, 21 people died from listeria linked to tainted hot dogs, according to a CDC online database.

“We haven’t seen a lot of very large listeria outbreaks” in recent years, Mahon said. “To a large extent, that’s due to improvements to the safety of hot dogs and deli meats.”

The FDA and state officials are investigating whether animals or water may have transmitted the bacteria to the melons, and whether the contamination occurred during the growing, harvesting, packing or rinsing processes, Sherri McGarry, senior adviser in the FDA’s Office of Foods, said on the conference call.

“We are working vigilantly to ensure that the product is being removed from the market,” McGarry said. The tainted cantaloupes, shipped from July 29 to Sept. 10 in at least 17 states, are “nearing the end of their shelf life,” she said.

--With assistance from Robert Langreth in New York. Editors: Andrew Pollack, John Lear

To contact the reporter on this story: Molly Peterson in Washington at mpeterson9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net


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