Updated: September 21, 2011 at 12:00 am
WASHINGTON — Federal health officials say the death toll has risen to eight in an outbreak of listeria traced to Colorado-grown cantaloupes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that a person in Maryland has died from eating the tainted produce. Four other deaths were reported in New Mexico, two in Colorado and one in Oklahoma.
The CDC said 55 people in 14 states have now been confirmed as sickened from eating the cantaloupes. On Monday, the CDC reported four deaths and 35 illnesses in 10 states.
The death count — the highest in a known outbreak since tainted peanuts were linked to nine deaths almost three years ago — could go higher. The CDC said illnesses in several other states potentially connected to the outbreak are under investigation.
The illnesses have been reported in California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Colorado has the most illnesses with 14 sickened, followed by New Mexico with 10, Texas with nine and Oklahoma with eight.
The outbreak has been traced to cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., which recalled the tainted produce week.
The Food and Drug Administration said Monday it had found listeria in samples of Jensen Farms' cantaloupes taken from a Denver-area store and on samples taken from equipment and cantaloupes at the farm's packing facility. Tests confirmed that the samples matched strains of the disease found in those sickened.
Jensen Farms said the recalled cantaloupes were shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to Illinois, Wyoming, Tennessee, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas, New Mexico, North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. The FDA said it is possible the company distributed to other states as well.
In a statement, Jensen Farms said "we are deeply saddened to learn that cantaloupes grown on our farm have been linked to the current listeria outbreak. Our hearts go out to those individuals and their families who have been affected by this terrible situation."
The company said it has hired an independent food safety expert to help determine the cause of the problem and how to address it.
Health officials have said they think the number of illnesses and deaths could continue to grow because the incubation period for listeria can be up to a month. Unlike many pathogens, listeria bacteria can grow at room and refrigerator temperatures. The FDA and CDC recommend anyone who may have one of the contaminated cantaloupes throw it out immediately.
About 800 cases of listeria are found in the United States each year, according to CDC, and there usually are three or four outbreaks. Most of these are traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common.
Produce has rarely been the culprit, but federal investigators say they have seen more produce-related listeria illnesses in the past two years. It was found in sprouts in 2009 and celery in 2010.
While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes through to the fetus. In the current outbreak, the median age of those sickened is 78, according to the CDC.
Symptoms of listeria include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms.