Toss Your Melons: Listeria Outbreak Now Deadliest in a Decade

A Listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupes has killed 13 people thus far.

September 15, 2011

Cut cantaloupe is more at risk of making you sick. Bacteria can travel from the skin to the meat of the fruit.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The Listeria outbreak traced back to Colorado cantaloupes is now the deadliest in a decade, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on Wednesday. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CDC have linked 84 illnesses and 15 deaths to the outbreak, caused by cantaloupes grown in the Rocky Ford region of Colorado. Because Listeria can take anywhere from one day to two months to cause illness, both agencies anticipate even more illnesses.

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The FDA has pinpointed Jensen Farms of Colorado as the likely source of the outbreak, stemming from 300,000 cases of contaminated fruit that was shipped between July 29 and September 10, 2011. The agency is urging anyone with cantaloupes from the farm to throw them out. Farmers interviewed by a Denver news station said that the bacteria infected the outer shell of the contaminated produce, and in such cases, the bacteria can either spread to the meat of the fruit or infect food prep surfaces, such as cutting boards, and contaminate other foods.

In addition, the agency announced on Tuesday that because some wholesalers and distributors may have further distributed the recalled cantaloupes to food processors, additional products that contain cantaloupe from Jensen Farms are likely to be recalled—and they have been. Carol’s Cuts, a Kansas-based food processor, is recalling 594 pounds of fresh-cut cantaloupe packaged in 5-pound trays as chunks and as an ingredient in 8-ounce mixed fruit medley that was distributed in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. (For an image of the recalled cut cantaloupe packaging, see the FDA's website).

According to the CDC, Listeria is commonly found in soil and water, and typically crops up in meat and dairy products. But it can affect produce that passes through contaminated processing plants, where Listeria can live for years. Listeria can be killed during cooking, but that's not going to help disinfect contaminated cantaloupe.

Listeriosis, the disease caused by the bacterium, is relatively rare in the U.S. but 20 to 30 percent of people who do contract it die. Pregnant women are among those most adversely affected by listeria and can suffer miscarriages if they eat contaminated food. Average healthy adults, however, will experience muscle aches and fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and sometimes convulsions.

The contaminated cantaloupe was shipped to the following states:
Arizona
Colorado
Illinois
Indiana*
Kansas
Louisiana*
Minnesota
Missouri
Nebraska
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
Oklahoma
Pennsylvania
Tennessee
Texas
Utah
Wisconsin*
Wyoming

*On Friday, Sept. 30, the FDA added Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin to the list of states where the cantaloupe had been shipped.

To determine whether you have any of the contaminated produce, look for one of the following stickers:
• 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 the cantaloupe is unlabeled, contact your retail store for sourcing information.

Tags: Rodale News