Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 10/7/2011 3:27:57 PM ET 2011-10-07T19:27:57

An outbreak of listeria in cantaloupe has sickened at least 109 people and led to 21 deaths, tying for the deadliest food poisoning toll in more than a decade, federal health officials said Friday.

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The ongoing outbreak, which includes four strains of the bacteria, also caused a miscarriage in a pregnant Iowa woman, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. That tops the toll from an outbreak of listeria in hot dogs and deli meat in 1998.

Federal officials have cautioned consumers to expect growing numbers of deaths and illnesses tied to the recall of more than 300,000 cases of Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes by Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo.

Illnesses have now been reported in 23 states. Deaths have been confirmed in 11 states, including five in Colorado, five in New Mexico, two each in Texas and Kansas and one each in Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma and Wyoming. State health officials continue to investigate suspected cases tied to the outbreak.

Listeria, which causes a foodborne infection that targets vulnerable people, has a long incubation period. That means people can continue to become sick up to two months after eating contaminated food.

In the Jensen Farms outbreak, whole cantaloupes were shipped from July 29 to Sept. 10. All of the affected melons should be past their shelf life, but some fruit could have been refrigerated and still cause illness. On Thursday, Fruit Fresh Up Inc. of Depew, N.Y., recalled about 4,800 individual packages of cantaloupe and mixed fresh fruit because of potential listeria contamination.

The fruit was distributed in Buffalo, N.Y., and surrounding areas in retail stores and through catering orders.

The federal Food and Drug Administration has not yet identified the root cause of the outbreak. Listeria was found in samples of the cantaloupe taken from a Denver-area store and the Jensen Farms packing plant in Granada, Colo. The melons were shipped to as many as two dozen states, and possibly more because of extended distribution.

Consumers should toss any remaining cantaloupe from Jensen Farms and clean and sterilize kitchen and eating surfaces, health officials said.

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