Cantaloupe Listeria Death Toll 29: Deadliest Outbreak Since 1924

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By: Staff Writers | Published: November 4th, 2011

The nationwide listeria outbreak linked to Jensen Farms’ Rocky Ford cantaloupes has claimed at least 29 lives, making it the deadliest food poisoning outbreak on record since 1924. 

While the cantaloupes have been off of store shelves for nearly two months, the death toll and illnesses from the outbreak continues to rise due to the length of time the listeria monocytogenes bacteria can live in the human body before making someone ill. In addition to the 29 deaths, at least 139 illnesses have also been linked to the cantaloupes.

Jensen Farms, the grower, issued a cantaloupe recall on September 14, and subsequent FDA inspections found unsanitary conditions at the company’s Colorado processing plant.

A number of food poisoning lawsuits have been filed by people who fell ill after eating the cantaloupes and by family members of some of the deceased.

The outbreak is the third deadliest on record. The deadliest food poisoning outbreak occurred in 1924 and was caused by typhoid-tainted raw oysters that killed at least 150 people. The second deadliest was a streptococcus outbreak that killed 48 people which was linked to unpasteurized raw milk. That outbreak led to laws requiring milk pasteurization.

While one of the rarer forms of food poisoning, listeria is one of the more dangerous. It frequently results in hospitalization and about a quarter of those who contract the illness die from the infection.

Listeria illnesses pose a particular risk for children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. For pregnant women, illness from Listeria bacteria can cause miscarriages and still births.

Blood tests are usually required to diagnose listeriosis, which can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of listeriosis include muscle aches, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, severe headaches and fever. If the bacteria spreads from the intestines to the bloodstream and nervous system, it could cause meningitis and other complications.

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