CDC: More Listeria deaths possible

Staff and wire reports

DENVER — A melon farm in Colorado has issued a recall of cantaloupe following a Listeria outbreak that has killed at least two people, sickened 22 and spread to several states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the deaths from the outbreak were reported in Colorado and New Mexico, and state health departments said more deaths could be confirmed once testing comes back.

The CDC said the 22 people infected are in seven states: Colorado, Indiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia.

Jensen Farms spokeswoman Amy Philpott said Thursday that one of the Colorado farm’s Rocky Ford cantaloupes tested positive for the bacteria, but more tests are needed to determine if it’s the same strain linked to the outbreak. The farm provides about 40 percent of the area’s cantaloupes, Philpott said.

It is first time the bacteria has been linked to cantaloupe in the U.S. The outbreak apparently originated in Rocky Ford, a fertile melon-growing area of Colorado that is a popular destination for tourists.

Jim Winchester, communications director for the New Mexico Environment Department, is cautiously optimistic that the outbreak has been isolated.

“We have confidence based on the sample that we have that has been analyzed and fingerprinted,” Winchester said. “I can never guarantee we won’t get cantaloupes from another place (that are part of the infection). But at this point, we have no reason to believe there are any farms other than Jensen.”

Philpott said the company shipped more than 300,000 cases across the country during the period covered by the recall, but the company has recalled the entire harvest as a precaution.

The farm stopped harvesting on Monday when Colorado health officials issued an alert and notified retailers to remove the cantaloupes from shelves, Philpott said.

New Mexico has blamed three deaths on the outbreak, including a 61-year-old Curry County woman, but epidemiologist Chad Smelser said Thursday that one death has been confirmed and the other two are pending results from the CDC.

The CDC said almost all of the victims interviewed remember eating cantaloupe and several remembered that they were from the Rocky Ford region.

The agency said about 800 cases of Listeria are diagnosed in the United States each year and there are three or four outbreaks of it a year. Deli meats, hot dogs and cheese are the most frequent carriers, and outbreaks in produce are rare. Sprouts caused an outbreak in 2009, however, and celery caused an outbreak in 2010.

Cantaloupe is often a culprit in foodborne illness outbreaks, but not listeriosis. Earlier this year, state and federal authorities linked 12 salmonella illnesses, many of them in the West, to cantaloupes imported from Guatemala.

The cantaloupes were shipped between July 29 and Sept. 10 and distributed throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Listeriosis is a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems. Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion and convulsions.