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An outbreak of bacteria linked to tainted cantaloupes is responsible for up to16 deaths and 72 illnesses in 18 states, according to the latest numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So far, 13 deaths have been confirmed with three other cases still pending test results.
UPDATE: The number of deaths that were confirmed to be caused by the tainted fruit has risen to 15.
It's the deadliest epidemic caused by contaminated food in more than 10 years, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
The particular strain of the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes has been traced to cantaloupes grown by Jensen Farms in Granada, Colorado. Although the Rocky Ford-brand fruits were recalled on September 14th, more illnesses are likely to occur because it can take more than two months for people to become sick after eating the tainted fruit, said Barbara Mahon, deputy chief of the CDC’s Enteric Disease branch.
“Listeria is an unusual bacteria,” Frieden said. “The incubation period is one to three weeks on average, and can be two months or more, so there is a continued risk. If you have cantaloupe in your refrigerator that you are in doubt about the source of, it’s best to throw it out.”
Jensen Farms says it shipped cantaloupes to 25 states, though the FDA believes they may have shipped to more. Already, illnesses have been discovered in several states that weren't on the shipping list. A spokeswoman for Jensen Farms said in a statement that the company's product is often sold and resold, so they do not always know where it went.
The FDA is working with Colorado health officials to learn how the contamination occurred, commissioner Margaret Hamburg told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
“This outbreak has been a tough one for all involved,” she said. “This is the first outbreak we’ve seen with listeria” linked to cantaloupe, “and that is a surprise.”
Of the 10 previous outbreaks linked to tainted cantaloupe in the past decade, seven were caused by salmonella and three were from norovirus.
Listeria, a bacterium often found in soil and water, sickens about 1,600 people and kills about 260 people each year in the United States. Pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are especially at risk for listeria infections. Symptoms include fever and diarrhea.