Image: Cantaloupe
Ed Andrieski  /  AP file
Cantaloupes grown in the Rocky Ford region of Colorado by Jensen Farms of Holly., Colo., have been linked to a growing -- and deadly -- listeria outbreak.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/27/2011 6:03:59 PM ET 2011-09-27T22:03:59

At least 13 people are dead amid 72 sickened in 18 states in an outbreak of listeria food poisoning tied to contaminated cantaloupes, federal health officials said Tuesday.

The figures were the latest confirmed as of Monday morning, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. But they may well rise in the still-widening outbreak that now ranks as the deadliest in the United States in more than a decade.

State and local health officials in Wyoming and Kansas are investigating three additional deaths that may be connected.

In 1998, an outbreak of listeria infections caused by listeria-contaminated hot dogs and deli meats killed 21 people, CDC records show.

Most of the deaths and illnesses in the outbreak tied to whole cantaloupes grown and shipped by Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo., have targeted the elderly, pointing out the lethal potential of infections from listeria monocytogenes in vulnerable populations.

"It's basically a feature of listeriosis itself. It affects people who have other counts against them," said Dr. Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of foodborne, waterborne and fungal infections at the CDC. "It's just a severe infection."

Victims range in age from 35 to 96 years, with an average age of 78. But most of the infections from four outbreak strains of listeria have occurred in people older than 60, the report said. CDC officials now think the illnesses began several days sooner than previously thought, with illnesses starting on or after July 31. People can become ill up to several weeks after eating food contaminated with listeria.

Deaths have been reported in eight states, including four in New Mexico, two in Colorado, two in Texas and one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Severe illness, stillbirths
Listeria is a common bacterium that typically causes mild illness in healthy people, but can cause severe illness in older people and those with compromised immune systems. It also can cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women and severe infections in new babies. Listeria infections lead to about 1,600 serious illnesses each year and about 260 people die, according to the CDC.

The latest outbreak has been detected only in Rocky Ford cantaloupes processed and shipped to at least 25 states by Jensen Farms. Federal Food and Drug Administration officials have detected evidence of the outbreak strains of listeria in packing houses and on equipment at the site. Jensen Farms issued a voluntary recall of the whole fruit on Sept. 14; Carol's Cuts LLC, a Kansas food processor, issued a recall for nearly 600 pounds of cut fresh cantaloupe and fruit medley containing cantaloupe on Friday.

The Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms were shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

While it's not clear yet clear exactly how the cantaloupes became contaminated, the fruit is susceptible because of its rough, porous skin and soft, succulent interior. In addition, knives can carry bacteria from the outside of the melon into the flesh when they slice through.

Despite the recall, FDA officials are concerned that the Rocky Ford melons may remain in consumers' homes. Listeria can survive and grow even when refrigerated, so any suspect fruit should be discarded, officials say.

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Overall, the listeria poisoning in cantaloupe now ranks as the third deadliest outbreak in U.S. history, a survey of foodborne illness data reported by the CDC’s Foodborne Outbreak Online Database, or FOOD, in other CDC reports and information logged by Seattle food poisoning lawyer Bill Marler's firm.

CDC estimates that about 48 million people in the U.S. each year get sick from tainted food, with about 128,000 hospitalized and 3,000 deaths.

Here’s a summary of U.S. food poisoning outbreaks with the largest tolls.

- Jalisco Mexican Products Inc., Artesia, Calif., January 1985. Mexican-style fresh cheese contaminated with listeria caused 52 deaths, including many stillbirths, although a CDC spokeswoman didn't know how many.

- Bil Mar Foods, Zeeland, Mich., October 1998. Hot dogs and deli meats contaminated with listeria left 101 people hospitalized with infections and 21 deaths.

- Peanut Corp. of America, Blakely, Ga., September 2008. Peanut butter and peanut paste contaminated with salmonella Typhimurium sickened 714, and led to 166 hospitalizations and nine deaths.

- Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Franconia, Pa., July 2002. Sliced turkey and deli meat contaminated with listeria led to 54 illnesses and eight deaths, including three stillbirths.

- Cargill Turkey Products Inc., Waco, Texas, May 2000. Turkey deli meat tainted with listeria left 29 ill and hospitalized and led to seven deaths, including three miscarriages or stillbirths.

- Dole Natural Selection Foods, San Juan Bautista, Calif., August 2006. Spinach tainted with E. coli O157:H7 sickened 238, hospitalized 103 people and led to five deaths.

- SanGar Fresh Cut Produce, San Antonio, Texas, October 2010. Celery contaminated with listeria sickened 10 people, including five who died.

- Jack in the Box, San Diego, Calif., November 1992. Ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157 led to 708 illnesses and four deaths.

- Chi-Chi’s restaurant, Beaver, Penn., October 2003. Hepatitis A infections tied to green onions sickened 565 people, left 128 hospitalized and caused three deaths.

- Raw restaurant-prepared tomatoes. December 1998. Contamination with the rare salmonella Baildon bacteria in restaurant-prepared cut tomatoes shipped to several states left 86 ill, 16 hospitalized and three dead.

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