As many as 14 deaths have occurred as a result of listeria-related illness traced to Colorado cantaloupes. According to health officials, it is a death toll that would make the food outbreak the deadliest in more than a decade.
According to the CDC, 55 illnesses and eight deaths were linked to the outbreak. Since then, state and local health departments in Kansas, Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming have reported six additional deaths that may be linked to the contaminated fruit.
Officials said that most of those who died were over age 60. At least two were in their 90s. Many of the deaths involved elderly people because they are susceptible to the aggressive agent of disease.
Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC says the number of illnesses and deaths will probably grow in coming weeks because the symptoms of listeria don't always show up right away.
Listeria, is a bacteria that can cause food poisoning. The bacteria can lead to listeriosis, a serious infection caused by eating contaminated food.
Pregnant women are at high risk for listeriosis as infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery or life-threatening infection of the newborn. Others at risk are those with weakened immune system and elderly adults.
Symptoms to look out for are fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms.
"That long incubation period is a real problem," Tauxe said. "People who ate a contaminated food two weeks ago or even a week ago could still be falling sick weeks later."
Earlier this month, the outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado. The farm has since recalled the tainted cantaloupes. Last week, the FDA reported that samples found in the infected individuals matched the strains of the disease found on listeria samples that were pulled from Jensen Farms’ cantaloupes taken from a Denver area store.
The recalled cantaloupe may be labeled "Colorado Grown," "Distributed by Frontera Produce," "Jensenfarms.com" or "Sweet Rocky Fords." Not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker, the FDA said.
About 800 cases of listeria are found in the United States each year, according to CDC, and there usually are three or four outbreaks. Most of these are traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common.
Produce has rarely been the culprit, but federal investigators say they have seen more produce-related listeria illnesses in the past two years. It was found in sprouts in 2009 and celery in 2010.