Health officials say as many as 16 people have now died from possible listeria illnesses traced to Colorado cantaloupes in what is being described as the deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade.
Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the number of illnesses and deaths will probably grow in coming weeks because the symptoms of listeria do not always show up right away. It can take four weeks or more for a person to fall ill after eating food contaminated with listeria.
Listeriosis, a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes, primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns, and adults with weakened immune systems.
The CDC said Tuesday that 72 illnesses, including 13 deaths, are linked to the tainted fruit. State and local officials say they are investigating three additional deaths that may be connected.
The death toll released by the CDC Tuesday, including newly confirmed deaths in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Texas, surpassed the number of deaths linked to an outbreak of salmonella in peanuts almost three years ago, reports the Associated Press.
Listeria is more deadly than well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, although those outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses.
The outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., which recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month.
The Food and Drug Administration said state health officials had found listeria in cantaloupes taken from grocery stores in the state and from a victim's home that were grown at Jensen Farms.
Matching strains of the disease were found on equipment and cantaloupe samples at Jensen Farms' packing facility in Granada, Colo.
The Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms were shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.
The recalled cantaloupes 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.
While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes to the fetus.
Symptoms of listeria include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms. Victims often become incapacitated and unable to speak.