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Colorado Canteloupes Source of Deadly Listeria Infection

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Canteloupe StickerThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning consumers not to eat Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms, because the Colorado-grown melons are contaminated with bacteria that cause listeria, a serious infection that so far has killed two people in Colorado and one person in New Mexico.

The tainted cantaloupes have made another 22 people ill in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, and West Virginia. On Thursday, a Colorado Springs couple, Charles and Tammie Palmer, filed a lawsuit against Jensen Farms, Walmart, and others, claiming the cantaloupe made the 71-year-old Charles Palmer ill. Palmer, a retired Marine sergeant, has been in Memorial Hospital since Aug. 31.

Although uncommon, listeria poisoning is potentially fatal — the overt form of the disease has a mortality rate of 25%. According to the New York State Department of Health, listeriosis has an extremely variable incubation period. It can range from three to 70 days, but symptoms usually appear within a month. Doctors first noticed symptoms of the food-borne infection on Aug. 15, and, on Sept. 9, Colorado announced the listeria source was cantaloupe. That was further pinpointed to Rocky Ford last Monday.

The Jensen Farms cantaloupes were shipped between July 29 and Sept. 10, and were distributed throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah, Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Sept. 14 that Jensen Farms, of Granada, Colorado, issued a voluntary recall of Rocky Ford cantaloupe because the melons have the potential to be contaminated with listeria and might be linked to a multi-state outbreak of the infection.

Jensen Farms is recalling its entire 2011 harvest, more than 300,000 cases of cantaloupe, which represents 40% of those grown in the Rocky Ford region. The Jensens, fourth-generation farmers, are cooperating fully with officials, opening records from independent food-safety audits. The Denver Post reports that the farmers “want to do the right thing so they can help prevent it from happening again.”

Walmart spokesman Greg Rossiter told Fox News that Palmer’s illness was the first time the company has heard that someone might have been made ill by cantaloupe bought at a Walmart store. He said the company removed cantaloupes from stores on Monday, Sept. 12, and has been working with suppliers to find melons that come from safe areas.

Michael Booth reports in The Denver Post:

… [B]acteria experts said it will take time to isolate whether the listeria source is farm soil, produce-cleaning systems, transportation or distribution.

‘We’re kind of in uncharted waters here. This is the first time there’s been a listeria outbreak from cantaloupe,’ said Colorado State University microbiologist Larry Goodridge, a food-pathogen expert who has been sampling soil and other materials in the Rocky Ford area of southeastern Colorado.

The CDC has recommended that people at high risk for listeria — including older adults, people with weak immune systems, pregnant women, and newborns — and anyone who wants to reduce their risk of listeria infection should not eat Rocky Ford cantaloupes from Jensen Farms. Listeria bacteria can grow in food at room temperature and also in the refrigerator, the CDC says. The agency cautions that even if you have eaten some of a Jensen Farms Rocky Ford cantaloupe, you should dispose of the rest of it immediately, in a closed plastic bag placed in a sealed trash can. This will prevent people or animals from eating it.

The recalled cantaloupes may have a sticker which looks like the image pictured above. However, not all of the recalled cantaloupes are labeled with a sticker. Ask the manager of the store where you bought the melon if you have questions about where it was grown.

The CDC offers the following suggestions to consumers:

For melons not part of this recall, follow this general advice for melon safety:
•    Consumers and food preparers should wash their hands before and after handling any whole melon, such as cantaloupe, watermelon, or honeydew.
•    Wash the melons and dry them with a clean cloth or paper towel before cutting.
•     Cut melon should be promptly consumed or refrigerated at or less than 40 degrees F (32-34 degrees F is best) for no more than 7 days.
•    Cut melons left at room temperature for more than 4 hours should be discarded.

Listeriosis is treated with antibiotics. If you are in the high-risk category and have flu-like symptoms within 70 days after eating contaminated food, you should seek medical care and tell your physician or health care provider about what you ate.

Symptoms vary, depending on which category an infected person is in:

•    High-risk persons other than pregnant women may experience fever, muscle aches, headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions.
•    Pregnant women typically experience only a mild, flu-like illness. But infections during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, or life-threatening infection of the newborn.
•    People who were previously healthy but were exposed to a very large dose of listeria can develop a non-invasive illness (meaning that the bacteria have not spread into their blood stream or other body sites). Symptoms can include diarrhea and fever.

More information about listeriosis and recommendations to reduce risk of getting listeriosis from food can be found on the CDC’s Listeriosis webpage.

The following Associated Press video gives some background on the current listeria outbreak:

Image by Centers for Disease Control, used under Fair Use: Reporting.


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