Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/21/2011 5:44:54 PM ET 2011-09-21T21:44:54

The toll of listeria food poisoning infections tied to contaminated cantaloupe rose sharply Wednesday, with federal health officials reporting 55 people sickened and eight dead in 14 states after eating tainted fruit.

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Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had previously reported 35 illnesses and four deaths in 10 states.

Food safety trackers, however — including Seattle lawyer Bill Marler — say they count as many as 68 infections and 11 deaths based on confirmed and suspect cases.

Local, state and federal health experts are investigating the widening outbreak tied to Rocky Ford-region brand whole cantaloupe shipped by supplier Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo. On Sept. 14, the federal Food and Drug Administration announced a recall of cantaloupes linked to the multi-state outbreak of listeriosis. The affected cantaloupes were shipped between July 29 and Sept. 10 to at least 17 states and possibly more.

Testing has revealed that the victims are infected with four strains of listeria associated with the outbreak. The CDC says they include 14 victims in Colorado, 10 in New Mexico, nine in Texas, eight in Oklahoma, four in Nebraska, two in Wisconsin and one each in California, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to a Wednesday report from the CDC. Deaths have included two in Colorado, one in Maryland, four in New Mexico and one in Oklahoma, federal officials said.

Among victims who supplied information to health investigators, the illnesses began on or after Aug. 4. They range in age from 35 to 96, with a median age of 78. At least 43 people have been hospitalized in connection with the outbreak. More illnesses are possible, as those that occurred after Aug. 28 may not have been reported yet.

On the company's website, Jensen Farms officials expressed regret for the outbreak:

“We are deeply saddened to learn that cantaloupes grown on our farm have been linked to the current listeria outbreak. Our hearts go out to those individuals and their families who have been affected by this terrible situation," a statement said. “We have been cooperating fully with public health officials who are trying to determine the source of the outbreak, and we will continue to do everything we can to assist them in their efforts. We hope that the investigation into the entire supply chain from farm to retail identifies the source of the contamination so that appropriate steps can be taken to prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again.”

Listeriosis is a serious foodborne infection that can cause illness and death in older adults, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions and compromised immune systems. Infections are usually caused by contaminated lunch meat, hot dogs and Mexican-style cheeses, not by produce.

Although the recall was issued in mid-September, illnesses could continue to be reported through October because people can develop listeriosis up to two months after eating contaminated food.

Health officials said consumers should discard the cantaloupe, even if they've eaten it and not become ill. Listeria bacteria can grow even under refrigeration.

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