Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak: 16 Now Dead

Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak: 16 Now Dead

This is shaping up to be one of the most deadly outbreaks of food-borne illness in almost a decade, according to the CDC. The official number of deaths has risen to 16 as of today, and will likely rise higher. The culprit is listeria, which has a long incubation time - up to four weeks in some cases - and the outbreak began around the 1st of September.
The deaths all stem from a contaminated batch of cantaloupes which were grown in the Colorado area. The cantaloupes were grown by Jensen Farms, and may also be labeled Frontera Produce or Rocky Ford Brand. There have been 17 cases of illness, in addition to the 16 deaths, in states across the country.
Listeria is a bacterial infection which is not as common as salmonella or e. coli, but which is a lot more deadly when it occurs. The United States reports about 800 cases of listeria a year, mostly from "deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common." The most recent listeria outbreak involved peanut butter in 1998, which sickened 744 people and killed nine.
Listeria is a hardy bacteria that does quite well at cooler temperatures, from room temperature all the way down to refrigerator temperatures. It causes fever, muscle aches, and diarrhea. It typically strikes people with compromised immune systems - the elderly, pregnant women, and young children.
No word yet on how the cantaloupes became infected with listeria. This MSNBC article points suspicion at the cantaloupe's "rough, porous skin and soft, succulent interior." Listeria is a tough little bacteria, and may have been present on some of the equipment used to handle the cantaloupes on their trip to market. It's also possible that the fields were irrigated with listeria-contaminated water (if memory serves, this is what caused an outbreak of e. coli in spinach).
Early reports advised people to determine where their cantaloupe was from, and get rid of it if it had been raised in Colorado. I mentioned this to my neighbor and she asked me, "How am I supposed to find out where my cantaloupe is from?"
It was a good question, and I didn't have an answer for her. It turned out that if her cantaloupe had a sticker, it had long since fallen off. Let's face it, the closest we ever get to origin information is the country. Often the best you can usually do is determine that your cantaloupe was grown in the USA.