Tainted Cantaloupes Behind Deadliest Food-Borne Outbreak

PHOTO: Listeria monocytogenes bacteria

With 29 people now dead, listeria-tainted cantaloupe has caused the deadliest recorded U.S. outbreak of food-borne illness, surpassing a 1985 outbreak with similarly tainted Mexican cheese.

Just a few weeks ago, food safety experts said the contaminated musky melons were behind what was shaping up to be the worst cluster of food-related illnesses and deaths in a generation. On Wednesday, that was largely confirmed when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the 29th death from Listeria monocytogenes linked to melons from Jensen Farms, based in Holly, Colo.

Depending on whose figures you use, the fruit-linked outbreak is, at the very least, just as deadly as a 1985 listeriosis outbreak that killed 29 Southern Californians who ate Mexican-style soft cheeses such as queso fresco and cotija.

In its final report, the CDC tallied 29 deaths from the cheese: eight in infants, 13 stillbirths and eight others in non-neonates. But a Sept. 29, 1988, article in the New England Journal of Medicine, which followed additional review by the CDC, the Los Angeles County health department and the Food and Drug Administration, revised the 1985 death toll downward to 28 -- 20 infants and 18 adults. The revision would give the current cantaloupe outbreak the grim distinction of being the worst ever.

Although the rate of newly confirmed cantaloupe cases has slowed, more Americans could still succumb because listeria can deliver its wallop months after the invisible trip from a plate into the depths of the digestive system. In addition, after someone starts feeling sick, they may delay seeing a doctor and the illness may not come to the attention of public health officials until a laboratory confirms the diagnosis and ties it to other cases.

Since Aug. 15, tainted cantaloupes, which also caused a pregnant woman in northwest Iowa to miscarry, have sickened 139 people with four strains of listeria. All were traced to cantaloupe grown and processed by Jensen Farms.

Listeriosis infections may cause fever, stiff neck, muscle aches, headache, confusion and vomiting; the most serious complications are sepsis, a potentially fatal blood infection, and meningitis, inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain.

Of the 142 people sickened in the 1985 cheese-linked outbreak, 93 were pregnant women or their children, underscoring the risk that rod-shaped listeria bacteria pose to pregnant women, who can miscarry or transmit the infection to their fetuses.

Also vulnerable are infants, the elderly and anyone else with a compromised immune system.

The number of people sickened or killed in the current outbreak could very well increase, especially given that some victims are still fighting for their lives.

"I have two clients who are in the ICU, both in their 80s, both in Colorado," said Bill Marler, a Seattle food safety attorney whose law firm is representing the families of 26 victims of the current outbreak (10 who died and 16 who survived).

Although relatives of the two ICU patients remain hopeful about their prognoses, both have been hospitalized a month and a half and subjected to the risks of prolonged hospitalization, including additional infections and pneumonia.

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