Sept. 14, 2011 -- Colorado cantaloupes are the latest food to go under the microscope after the melons were linked to four deaths and 16 cases of Listeria, a potentially deadly bacterial infection.
While the FDA has not announced a recall on the fruit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of the multi-state outbreak that health officials believe originated from the popular Rocky Ford cantaloupes, which are produced in the Arkansas Valley of Colorado. The cases were reported in five states: Colorado, Texas, Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
"We've had [more than 10] cases in Colorado since Aug. 1 that are now linked to the multi-state outbreak," said Mark Salley, communications director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "Typically, Colorado sees about 10 cases of Listeria per year, so when we saw so many since Aug. 1, we knew that was significant and decided to look into the multi-state nature of the illness."
Jensen Farms, of Holly, Colo. has already voluntarily recalled their shipment of Rocky Ford whole cantaloupe to the following states:
Illinois, Wyoming, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania
The Jensen Farms whole cantaloupes in question have a green and white sticker that reads: Product of USA- Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford-Cantaloupe or a gray, yellow, and green sticker that reads: Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords.
Listeriosis is a rare and serious illness that mostly affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and those with compromised immune systems. A person who comes down with it usually experiences fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and confusion. The infection almost always spreads to the gastrointestinal tract, and it can cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women.
The FDA released a statement Tuesday noting that the government agency is working closely with the CDC and state health officials to investigate the multi-state listeriosis outbreak.
"Both FDA and state public health officials have collected product and environmental samples," the FDA said in the statement. "Laboratory testing is under way."
Most FDA recalls are voluntary, but since January 2011, the FDA now has the authority to require a recall through the Food Safety Modernization Act.
For a recall to be ordered or requested, FDA must identify products involved and have at least some evidence that there is a "reasonable probability that an article of food ... will cause serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals."
Cantaloupes are only the most recent food to be spotlighted as a source of potential foodborne illness. Ground turkey, eggs and cucumbers have all come under fire for spreading infections in recent months. But even as health officials' abilities to connect illness to food, revealing more specific sources of outbreaks, a recent NPR-Thomson Reuters health poll found that fewer Americans worry about food safety today than one year ago.
About 57 percent of survey respondents said they're concerned or very concerned about food safety today, compared with 61 percent in 2010.
Greg Conko, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that most Americans' food worries are about microbial infections and chemical concerns. Anxiety tends to fluctuate from year to year, depending on whether there's been a recent high-profile recall.
"In any given year, roughly 40 to 50 percent of U.S. respondents will report that they are concerned about microbial contamination," said Conko.
"Most Americans respond to the latest issue (ground turkey, tomatoes, etc.) whatever is the current recall 'crisis," Dr. David Acheson, managing director of the food and import safety practice at Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in health care and food safety. Parents of young children are often concerned for obvious reasons. As time passes, consumers tend to forget, so when there is a spate of big recalls and lots of news, the concern goes up accordingly then drops away as the issue disappears."