WASHINGTON — Federal health authorities say a nationwide outbreak of listeria in Colorado cantaloupes is now responsible for 21 deaths and the number may continue to grow.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday reported new deaths in Indiana and New York. The CDC also confirmed a death in Wyoming that state officials reported last week. CDC said 109 people have been sickened in the outbreak — including the 21 dead — in 23 states from California to the East Coast.
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 is also aware of one miscarriage associated with the outbreak.
The number of illnesses and deaths is expected to grow. Louisiana has said it is investigating two listeria deaths possibly related to the outbreak that aren't included in the CDC's count.
CDC officials have said the symptoms of listeria can take up to two months to show up and that they expect more illnesses through October.
The death toll in the cantaloupe outbreak is now tied with 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 United States before that is believed to have been listeria in Mexican-style soft cheese in 1985, which 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 country 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 Food and Drug Administration 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 disease were found on equipment and cantaloupe samples at Jensen Farms' packing facility in Granada, Colo.
The company has said they shipped the cantaloupe to around half of U.S. states, but added that they aren't sure where the cantaloupe went because it has been sold and resold. Thus, many companies may not even 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 is still investigating the cause of the outbreak. Officials have said they are looking at the farm's water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things to figure out the source of the problem. Listeria bacteria grow in moist, muddy conditions and are often carried by animals.
Officials from the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration say 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.
Government health officials said this is the first known outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe. Listeria is generally found in processed meats and unpasteurized milk and cheese, though there have been a growing number of outbreaks in produce.
Listeria is rare but more deadly than well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, 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 illnesses 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.