The ongoing Listeria outbreak caused by contaminated cantaloupe, with 29 deaths, has been called the most deadly foodborne illness in recent U.S. history.   

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta was recently asked by the USA Today newspaper to review its files for larger fatal outbreaks going back to the early 20th century.

Previously, CDC’s record of the most fatal outbreaks dated back officially to 1973, and  informally to 1967. Going back beyond that the public health authority found early 20th century outbreaks in Boston and New York that top this revised list of the most deadly food illness outbreaks.  

The following is a summary of the most lethal — not the largest — foodborne illness outbreaks over more than 100 years. It drops the current Listeria outbreak to No. 3.

1. Oysters

1924-25, New York City

Approximately 150 killed out of 1,500 sickened by typhoid from raw oysters.

At a time when New York was the center of the nation’s oyster business, harvested oysters were kept in baskets below the water line near sewage outtakes. Untreated sewage containing typhoid bacteria contaminated the oysters, which eventually were shipped across the country on refrigerated rail cars.

2. Raw Milk

1911, Boston

Forty-eight died from streptococcus in raw (unpasteurized) milk in an outbreak with more than 2,000 illnesses.

At the time, people were said to be suffering from “septic sore throat.”  Raw milk outbreaks like the one experienced in Boston in 1911 prompted the U.S. Public Health Service’s successful campaign to require pasteurization in 1924.

3. Cantaloupes

2011, United States (28 states)

Twenty-nine deaths plus one miscarriage .


A Listeria outbreak traced back to “Rocky Ford”-brand cantaloupes grown in Colorado’s Arkansas River Valley has infected at least 139 people. The outbreak, beginning in July 2011, had continued into November due to the bacteria’s long incubation time.  More than 1.5 million cantaloupes recalled from 24 states by grower Jensen Farms.

4. Mexican Cheese

1985,  Los Angeles County, CA

Twenty-eight deaths plus 20 miscarriages

Pregnant women and their unborn babies were the primary victims of a Listeria outbreak that was sourced to Mexican style cheeses produced by Jalisco Mexican Products, a local company. A total of 142 were infected in an outbreak known for its high number (20) of miscarriages. 

5. Raw Milk

1922, Portland, OR

Twenty-two deaths and 487 illnesses were reported from streptococcus that was traced to raw milk consumption. At the time, the illnesses in this outbreak were also reported to be  from “septic sore throat.”

6. Frankfurters/Hotdogs

1998, United States (24 states)

Twenty-one deaths.

More than 100 were hospitalized and 21 died from Listeria contamination of frankfurters and/or hotdogs produced by Bil Mar Foods. There was evidence that the demolition of a refrigeration unit in July 1998 might have increased environmental contamination in Bil Mar’s meat production plant.

7. Canned Olives

1919, California

Fifteen died of botulism after eating olives packed in glass jars. This outbreak led to changes in canning methods to prevent botulism.

8. Peanut Butter and Paste

 2008-09, United States (46 states)

Nine deaths  from a Salmonella Typhimurium outbreak in 46 states and Canada, infecting at least 714.  

Source of the outbreak was peanut butter and peanut paste processing facilities owned by Peanut Corporation of America.

9.  Deli Meats

2002, United States (3 States)

Eight deaths and 3 stillbirths  in a Listeria outbreak due to contamination of sliceable turkey deli meat traced back to a processing plant operated by Pilgrim’s Pride Foods

10. Bagged Spinach

2006, United States (22 states)

An E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving Dole Brand Natural Selections bagged spinach, infecting 238 and causing five deaths. 

Note: A January 2010 Listeria outbreak also resulted in five deaths, but only 10 were infected.