The outbreak of listeriosis, an illness caused by the food-borne pathogen Listeria, has killed 5 people and sickened many others across at least six states in US following the consumption of cantaloupe.
Three of the five deaths that have been attributed to Listeria contamination were in New Mexico, and people in Colorado, Texas and Nebraska were also infected following the consumption of cantaloupe.
Listeria infection is generally contracted from deli meats and hot dogs, and can result from consumption of dairy as well.
The higher risk of Listeria infection is among the elderly, small children, people with compromised immune systems and particularly pregnant women, who risk a miscarriage or stillbirth from exposure to the pathogen.
A person who comes down with Listeria infection usually experiences fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and confusion. The infection almost always spreads to the gastrointestinal tract, but can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths in pregnant women.
Two of the five deaths, which have been related to Listeria infection, occurred in Colorado, and public health officials believe they may have traced the outbreak to “cantaloupe from the famed Rocky Ford area” as the “likely culprit” of the severe illnesses and deaths.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a cantaloupe warning after 16 cases of a strain of Listeria were reported in five states, including 11 from Colorado, two from Texas, and one each from Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The agency said it was the first Listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe in the United States. The US Food & Drug Administration said it had not recalled the cantaloupes while it worked to locate the source.
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.”
“Both FDA and state public health officials have collected product and environmental samples,” the FDA said in the statement. “Laboratory testing is under way.”
Rocky Ford cantaloupes, named for a region along the old Santa Fe Trail about 130 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Denver, are prized for their above-average sugar content.
Dr. Chris Urbina, director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, commented on the investigation into the Listeria outbreak:
“People at high risk for listeria infection should not eat cantaloupe from the Rocky Ford growing region… The department expects additional test results later this week that may help identify the specific source of the cantaloupe linked to the multistate outbreak.”
According to officials, general recommendations for avoiding Listeria infection include heating deli meats and hot dogs to steaming hot, and avoiding soft cheeses. In the particular case of the Listeria outbreak affected states, they are cautioning residents to refrigerate cut melon as well as to discard any melon that has remained at room temperature for more than 4 hours.