As many as 14 people have died from possible listeria illnesses traced to Colorado cantaloupes, health officials say — a death toll that would make the food outbreak the deadliest in more than a decade.
The Centers for Disease Control said last week that 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 tainted fruit.
Listeria is more deadly than more well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, though those outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses.
Listeria generally only sickens the elderly, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems. The CDC said last week that the median age of those sickened was 78.
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 last week that it had found listeria in samples of Jensen Farms' cantaloupes taken from a Denver-area store and on samples taken from equipment and cantaloupes at the farm's packing facility.
The Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes from Jensen Farms were shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to several states, including New York and New Jersey.
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.
Unlike many pathogens, listeria bacteria can grow at room temperatures and even refrigerator temperatures. The FDA and CDC recommend anyone who may have one of the contaminated cantaloupes throw it out immediately.
Consumer health advocates say those who think they may have had the tainted fruit in their kitchen should go a step farther. Caroline Smith DeWaal of the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest says people should clean and sanitize any surfaces that the cantaloupe may have touched.
Symptoms of listeria include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.