The death toll linked to tainted cantaloupe from a Colorado farm has risen to eight, making it the most lethal episode of food poisoning since contaminated peanuts took the lives of nine people in 2008.
Federal authorities say they now have reports of 55 cases of people in 14 states infected with four strains of Listeria monocytogenes since the outbreak began early last month. Officials have concluded that the source of the outbreak is whole cantaloupe from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., and the business has recalled its Rocky Ford-brand of the fruit.
As USA Today reports, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that illnesses in several more states are under investigation and officials believe the death toll could rise further.
The agency said illnesses are likely to continue to be reported through October because patients can develop listeriosis up to two months after eating contaminated food. It recommended that people at high risk for listeriosis, including pregnant women and the elderly, avoid eating Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms.
Officials added that, even if people have cantaloupe that has been eaten without anyone becoming ill, they should dispose of the rest of the potentially tainted fruit immediately because Listeria bacteria can grow at room or refrigerator temperatures.
Symptoms of the infection, which can be treated with antibiotics, include fever and muscle aches, often preceded by diarrhea or other gastrointestinal problems. Cases vary greatly, however, and in pregnant women, symptoms can resemble those of a mild, flu-like illness.
As The New York Times reports, the outbreak comes as one of the nation’s largest produce marketers, Del Monte Fresh Produce, is launching a legal battle against the Food and Drug Administration related to a separate case of tainted cantaloupes. The company agreed in March to recall cantaloupes from Guatemala detected with salmonella, but now it is trying to block additional restrictions on melon imports.
The effort is being cheered by many in the produce industry, who often complain about what they call overreaching by regulators. But food safety advocates say they suspect Del Monte is trying to bully regulators into thinking twice before pursuing future recalls.