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Cantaloupe- Linked Listeria Outbreak Kills at Least 13 in 18 States; Scores Infected

At least 13 and possibly as many as 16 people in 18 states have died as a result of listeria infections caused by tainted cantaloupes traced to a farm in Colorado.

According to Reuters and ABC News, in addition to the 13 deaths, 72 listeria infections have been reported nationwide, making this the deadliest such outbreak in more than a decade. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is warning that the number of cases is expected to rise further, since it can take up to two months for people infected with the bacteria to develop listeriosis.

The outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirmed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in samples from that farm and issued a recall on September 14. Particularly, Rocky Ford brand cantaloupes were recalled.

“This is the deadliest outbreak of a food-borne disease we’ve identified in more than a decade,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden told ABC News. “For the public, it’s important to know that if you know the cantaloupe you have is not Jensen Farms, then it’s OK to eat. But if you’re in doubt, throw it out.”

Of the 13 confirmed listeria fatalities linked to this outbreak, four were in New Mexico, two each were in Colorado and Texas and one each occurred in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Three additional deaths– one each in New Mexico, Kansas and Wyoming– may also be attributed to the outbreak.

Listeria infection can result in fever, stiffness, confusion and vomiting. Individuals with weak or compromised immune systems are at much higher risk for infection. Pregnant women and people with AIDS are respectively 20 and 300 times more likely to become infected than healthy people, the CDC says.

U.S. government investigators are trying to figure out what caused the outbreak. Possible culprits could be animal or water contamination or Jensen Farms’ harvesting methods. Of particular concern is the fact that four different strains of listeria have been identified in this outbreak, an unusual occurrence, the FDA says.

The last major listeria outbreak occurred in 1998, when contaminated hot dogs and deli meats killed 32 people and sickened 101 more.

This latest case underscores the importance of fully implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law at the beginning of the year to much fanfare. But budget cuts to the FDA left the agency unable to afford the updated food safety inspection process mandated by the law.

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