Cantaloupe Outbreak Highlights Need for Contamination Prevention: Study

A 2011 listeria outbreak linked back to cantaloupe highlights the need for better contamination prevention at farms and produce processing facilities throughout the United States, according to new research.  

In a study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers took an in-depth look at the 2011 cantaloupe listeria outbreak, which was the deadliest food poisoning outbreaks in almost a century. The outbreak was significant not only for its size, the researchers said, but also because fresh produce is not usually recognized as a vehicle for listeria.

According to the findings, the outbreak occurred between August 1 and October 31, 2011, resulting in 147 reported illnesses in 28 states, with nearly all cases resulting in hospitalization and a fatality rate of 22%. The vast majority of the patients (86%) were 60 years old or older. In addition to 33 fatalities linked to the outbreak, there was also one case of miscarriage blamed on the illnesses.

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Investigators had tracked the outbreak back to Jensen Farms in the Rocky Ford region of Colorado at the time, and the new report confirms that source. The company faces a number of food poisoning lawsuits as a result of the outbreak.

“Unsanitary conditions identified in the processing facility operate by the farm probably resulted in contamination of the cantaloupes with L. monocytogenes,” the researchers determined. “Raw produce, including cantaloupe, can serve as a vehicle for listeriosis. This outbreak highlights the importance of preventing produce contamination within farm and processing environments.”

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 listeria infection, which can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms of listeria poisoning 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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