Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tainted cantaloupes linked to 13 deaths, public health officials say

(CNN) -- Thirteen people have died from consuming bacteria-tainted cantaloupe in what has become the deadliest U.S. outbreak of a food-borne illness since 1998, according to records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The outbreak -- blamed on the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes -- was first reported September 12, when the CDC said 15 people in four states had been infected. The illnesses were traced to consumption of Rocky Ford cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms' fields in Granada, Colorado.

As of Monday morning, the latest statistics available, it had grown to 18 states, 72 illnesses and 13 deaths, according to the CDC.

In 1998, 21 people died from consuming tainted hot dogs, according to a CDC database.

In the current outbreak, four people who ate contaminated cantaloupes died in New Mexico, two each in Colorado and Texas, and one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

Public health officials also have reported illnesses in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

On September 14, Jensen Farms voluntarily recalled Rocky Ford whole cantaloupes shipped between July 29 and September 10. The cantaloupes were distributed in 17 states -- Illinois, Wyoming, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

The cantaloupes bear a green-and-white sticker that reads: Product of USA-Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford-Cantaloupe or a gray, yellow, and green sticker that says: Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords.

Unlabeled whole cantaloupe should be taken to the retailer for sourcing information, the Food and Drug Administration said.

"Jensen Farms continues to stay committed to the highest levels of food safety and maintains many third-party safety audits, as we have for many years," said Ryan Jensen, a partner at Jensen Farms. "We continually look for ways to enhance our protocol."

Frontera Produce, the supplier, issued a statement September 14 saying it was "working with FDA and state health officials to determine where along the supply chain the Listeria contamination may have occurred."

The 1998 tainted hotdog outbreak sickened 101 people and left 21 dead, according to the CDC's Foodborne Outbreak Online Database.

Listeriosis causes fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. It is rarely a serious concern for healthy children and adults, according to the CDC, but it is particularly dangerous for older adults, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, in whom it can cause miscarriages, stillbirth and premature delivery, or bring on a life-threatening infection in a newborn.

About 1,600 people become seriously ill because of the bacteria each year, the CDC reports. About 260 die, according to the agency.

Four families affected by the outbreak have filed lawsuits, said attorney Bill Marler, who is representing them. The suits include two in Colorado, one in Texas and one in Oklahoma. A fifth will be filed this week in Maryland, Marler said.

The cases in Oklahoma and Maryland involve relatives of people who have died in the outbreak, Marler said. The other cases involve people who have been sickened.

At least 10 other people have retained Marler's firm, he said.

Jensen Farms and Frontera Produce are listed as the defendants. An attorney for Jensen Farms and an official with Fontera Produce did not immediately return calls from CNN for comment Wednesday.

Marler said the opportunity to "put people under oath and have subpoena power" allows information to come to light about how such an outbreak happens.

He said he expects a court in Colorado to issue an order within days allowing his legal team to go onto the farm and the processing facility.

"My obligation is to try to figure out a way to compensate people who have gone through what these people have gone through," he said.

Cited here: CNN

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