Listeria Death Toll Rises in Jensen Farms Cantaloupe Recall

PHOTO: Clarence Wells family photoPlayCourtesy Donna Wells Lloyd
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Two more deaths are now attributed to listeria strains from the Jensen Farms cantaloupe recall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced today.

The new deaths, one each in Colorado and New Mexico, have raised the total number of fatalities to 15 in what has become the most deadly listeria outbreak in more than a decade.

In addition, new infections surfaced in Alabama and Arkansas, and five other states that had already confirmed matching listeria strains reported an increase, bringing the total number of people infected by the bacteria to 84.

The news comes one day after the latest listeria lawsuit filed by Donna Wells Lloyd, the daughter of Clarence Wells.

Wells, who lived with his daughter and her husband in a suburb of Baltimore, purchased a cantaloupe at a farmers' market on the border of his home state and Pennsylvania. Investigators are still trying to determine whether or not that cantaloupe, or the ones his family purchased from a large chain store, came from Jensen Farms.

He began experiencing symptoms in late August when he gained 9 pounds from fluid retention and had difficulty breathing, Lloyd told

"Two days before he didn't feel like eating," she said, but other than that, he hadn't complained of any other problems. The weight gain, however, "was extremely different than any other time he had been sick," she said.

Lloyd called her father's doctor, who immediately told her to take him to the hospital, where his health continued to decline. By Aug. 31 his temperature had spiked to 104 because of "a huge blood infection," Lloyd said.

Doctors intubated and sedated Wells, but he eventually lost consciousness, and never woke up. He died that evening.

In September the Baltimore County Health Department told Lloyd her father's blood had tested positive for listeria, and the Maryland Department of Health recently confirmed the strain found in Wells' body was one of the four strains involved in the listeria outbreak.

Clarence Wells had been a "news junkie," Lloyd said, would often point out what he could and couldn't eat based on the latest recalls. But the cantaloupe recall didn't happen until Sept. 14, so he had no way of knowing.

"I was shocked," Lloyd said. "It's almost surreal when you look at the numbers, and it was just these few people [who were infected] … kind of horrified because it's the stuff you hear about for everyone else."

Jensen Farms has recalled their entire 2011 cantaloupe harvest, including more than 300,000 cases distributed from July 29 through Sept. 10 to 25 states.

Eric Jensen, co-owner of the Granada, Colo., farm that grew the contaminated cantaloupes recently told the Associated Press that he's mystified as to what could have caused the outbreak. He couldn't comment further because of pending litigation.

"There are a lot of things I'd like to say right now, but now is not the time," Jensen told the AP.

Government health agencies are continuing to investigate.

"We'll be looking at water quality. We'll be looking at the growing practices, the harvesting practice," Food and Drug Administration senior adviser Dr. Sherri McGarry said Thursday. "We'll also be looking at the process within the facility for packing and potentially rinsing the cantaloupes themselves and how they were stored and whether there's amplification in that process."

Listeria can cause fever, neck stiffness, confusion and vomiting, according to the CDC. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are at a greater risk of developing serious symptoms. Listeria is especially dangerous during pregnancy and can infect the newborn or lead to premature delivery.

The CDC and FDA have urged consumers to ask their local retailers whether or not their cantaloupes came from Jensen Farms, cautioning, "if you're in doubt, throw it out."

At this point, all of the Jensen Farms cantaloupes should have been pulled from retailers' shelves. And the shelf life of cantaloupes is relatively short so most of the infected cantaloupes are now no longer palatable.

Even so, the number of illnesses may continue to rise.

"The incubation period for listeria is on average one to three weeks, and can be as much as two months or more," Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC. "So unfortunately there is continued risk from product that's already out there. For that reason, check the label."

The FDA asks consumers to follow these safety tips to help prevent illness:

Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling food.

Wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards and countertops; then sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used.

Wipe up spills in the refrigerator immediately and clean the refrigerator regularly.

Always wash hands with warm water and soap following the cleaning and sanitization process.