Listeria from antaloupes death toll now at 23, making outbreak deadliest in 25 years


(CBS/AP) The Listeria outbreak from cantaloupes is now the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in the U.S. in more than 25 years.

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The CDC announced Wednesday that 23 people have died from listeriosis, while another 116 have been sickened. Not since 1985, when Listeria from Mexican-style soft cheeses killed 52 people, has a foodborne illness outbreak been this deadly in America. The current death toll also surpassed a 1998 Listeria outbreak linked to processed meats that killed 21 people.

Officials say the tainted cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., should be off store shelves by now, as they were recalled mid-September and their shelf life is about two weeks. But the number of deaths may continue to grow. Symptoms of listeriosis can take up to two months to appear.

The CDC on Wednesday confirmed two more deaths in Louisiana. Other deaths have been reported in Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming.

Listeria illnesses have been reported in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

FDA investigators said that Colorado health officials found Listeria in cantaloupes taken from grocery stores and from a victim’s home that were grown at Jensen Farms. Matching disease strains were found on equipment and cantaloupe samples at Jensen Farms’ packing facility in Granada, Colo. FDA officials have said they were looking at the farm’s water supply and possible animal intrusions among other things to figure out the source of the problem. Listeria grows in moist and muddy conditions, and the bacteria are often are carried by animals.

Jensen shipped the cantaloupes to about half the states, but added that it wasn’t sure where the cantaloupes went because they have been sold and resold. Some companies may be unaware that they bought or distributed the tainted fruit.

Listeria is more deadly than other well-known pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. While most healthy adults can consume Listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly, those with compromised immune systems, and unborn children of pregnant women. The CDC said the median age of those sickened is 78, and most people who are ill are over 60. The CDC said it is also aware of one miscarriage linked to the outbreak.

Colorado has the most illnesses with 34, while Texas has reported 17.