Herb and Elaine Stevens didn’t expect to spend their 60th wedding anniversary Sept. 8 in a hospital room, but the Colorado couple had no choice after a meal of contaminated cantaloupe left him seriously ill with a listeria infection linked to a deadly outbreak of food poisoning.
The 84-year old Littleton man has shuttled between nursing homes and medical centers for a month, ever since he was sickened by a plastic-wrapped cut cantaloupe the pair bought at a local King Sooper grocery store. Before the illness, he was able to walk without help, stay alone for a few hours and take care of his dog. Now, says his daughter, it’s not clear whether Stevens will be able to return home.
“It’s scary,” said Jeni Exley, 55, of nearby Centennial, Colo.“You think you’re safe when you’re eating something. You put your trust in something and you get sick from it.”
Herb Stevens is among at least 55 people sickened — including eight who have died — after eating Rocky Ford Brand cantaloupes grown and shipped by Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo. On Thursday, the federal Food and Drug Administration said that audits of Jensen Farms records revealed the suspect fruit was shipped to 22 states, up from an original estimate of 17.
Stevens and his wife are among the first victims to sue the growers, said food safety lawyer Bill Marler of Seattle.
Toll expected to rise
Government health officials and food safety trackers say the listeria toll is likely to rise as more suspected infections are confirmed. Marler has counted as many as 68 infections and 11 deaths, which would put the mortality total higher than the 2009 salmonella outbreak in peanut butter that sickened nearly 700 and claimed nine lives.
This is the second time in six months that cantaloupes have been at the center of a food poisoning outbreak. In March, an outbreak of rare salmonella Panama in cantaloupe sickened 20 people in 10 states and led to a voluntary recall by Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc. The firm, one of the nation’s largest providers of fresh produce, later sued the FDA and threatened legal action against an Oregon epidemiologist, Dr. William Keene, claiming that that neither the agency nor the scientist had evidence Del Monte’s fruit was tainted.
Both are among at least a dozen outbreaks in cantaloupe since 1990, including those typically caused by salmonella, norovirus or E. coli., but not listeria, food safety experts say.
Cantaloupe is particularly susceptible to contamination, ranking among the top five kinds of commonly tainted produce, next to spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and green onions, said Doug Powell, a professor of food safety at Kansas State University and publisher of a food safety blog.
“What makes cantaloupe stand out is a couple of things. There’s the structure of the fruit. Think about a honeydew melon. They’re smooth and very hard. Cantaloupe is very soft,” Powell told msnbc.com.
With its bumpy rind and succulent flesh, cantaloupe can easily become tainted at any point from field to table, Powell said. Bacteria on the skin are hard to remove, and they can be spread to the edible portion of the melon when a knife slices through. There’s some evidence that the porous skin might actually allow tainted water to permeate the flesh, he added.
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It’s not yet clear how the Jensen Farms cantaloupes were contaminated. FDA officials have found listeria in lab samples taken from equipment and fruit at the farm’s packing facility. But the bacteria can be present in soil or water, so the root cause has not yet been determined, said Doug Karas, a spokesman.
However the fruit became tainted, the results can be dangerous, particularly in older people, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems. Victims in the outbreak range in age from 35 to 96, with an average age of 78, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“One you get a virulent strain of listeria, the kill rate is about 30 percent,” Powell said.
Older people seem to like cantaloupe, which is sweet, soft and easy to chew, and they may be inclined to refrigerate uneaten portions, not knowing that listeria bacteria can survive the cold temperatures, he added.
Cases of listeria may continue to be reported into October. Most of the victims so far became sick on or after Aug. 4, but people can continue to develop listeriosis, the infection, for up to two months after eating contaminated food, according to the CDC.
Consumers should avoid Rocky Ford cantaloupe shipped by Jensen Farms and throw away produce that may still be in their homes. The fruit was shipped between July 29 and Sept. 10 to Arkansas, California, Idaho, Ohio and Oklahoma, in addition to the previously noted 17 states: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
Chilling effect of lawsuit
Though the Del Monte lawsuit is not related to the current cantaloupe outbreak, it could have a chilling effect on food safety investigations now and in the future, experts said.
In the lawsuit against the FDA and in a now-dismissed complaint filed with an Oregon ethics commission against Keene, the state epidemiologist who investigated the March cantaloupe outbreak, Del Monte claims that neither the agency nor the scientist had direct evidence to blame the company’s fruit for the illnesses. In July, the FDA enacted an import alert against the company’s cantaloupe from Guatemala.
Del Monte officials accused Keene of a “cursory investigation” and charged that the FDA had no evidence that Del Monte cantaloupes caused illnesses because none ever tested positive for the salmonella Panama strain that caused the outbreak. Food safety experts, however, said epidemiological investigations often don’t include positive tests because the food has already been consumed.
Many outbreaks are confirmed only through interviews with ill people that reveal a common food source, Powell said. In the case of the new listeria outbreak, a health warning and recall were issued a week before experts actually detected the bacteria, possibly halting more infections and death.
“Can you imagine the outcry if Colorado had waited an extra week to go public in the current outbreak?” he said. “Del Monte’s lawsuit will, I’m afraid, cause health folks to be slower in going public.”
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