The nationwide Listeria outbreak linked to Colorado-grown cantaloupes seems to finally be slowing.

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – released the first of this month – reported 2 more deaths since its last update released a week before. This pattern of a few new deaths per week had become eerily commonplace over the preceding 11 weeks. 

cantaloupe-knife.jpgBut after this newest update, the CDC has remained silent on the Listeria outbreak for the month of November. 

This week Food Safety News checked in with local health departments in affected states to see whether the outbreak was continuing to take its toll, finding that there has been only one more victim linked to the outbreak since the last CDC update. 

A case of listeriosis in Illinois was recently confirmed to be part of the outbreak, bringing the total number of illnesses from 139 to 140 – with the number of deaths holding steady at 29.   Like 99 percent of those sickened so far, the Illinois victim was hospitalized. 

This illness appears to be the only new one to have been linked to the outbreak this month.

Thirteen of the involved states were able to confirm that their number of illnesses has stayed the same since the last CDC count. These states and their numbers of victims include: California (2), Colorado (39), Kansas (10), Louisiana (2), Missouri (6), New Mexico (15), New York (2), Oklahoma (11), Oregon (1), Pennsylvania (1) Texas (18), Utah (1), and Wisconsin (2).

“In New York it is still two. Nothing has changed and truthfully we don’t have any other cases that we’re investigating so it looks like it will probably stay at two,” said Pete Constantakes, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health. “There’s no reason to think it will change, and I think I even hear rumor that CDC may be winding down with this as well. It is true in New York, it’s been true for a long time, and it should not change. 

Numbers from the 14 other states have not been updated since CDC’s November 1 report, and are as follows: Alabama (1), Arkansas (1), Idaho (2), Indiana (3), Iowa (1), Maryland (1), Montana (1), Nebraska (6), Nevada (1), South Dakota (1), Utah (1), Virginia (1), West Virginia (1), and Wyoming (4). 

The Listeria outbreak has been linked to cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms in Colorado. It has affected victims in 28 states, and has become one of the deadliest outbreaks of in the United States.

Jensen Farms recalled its cantaloupes on Sept. 14, but illnesses continued to be reported after the contaminated cantaloupes were off store shelves due to the time it takes between when a person becomes ill and when the illness is reported, and also because up to 2 months can elapse between eating Listeria-contaminated food and developing listeriosis.

  • It is pretty clear that the fruit became contaminated in the Jensen Farms Packing Shed – see FDA report:
    As a result of the isolation of outbreak strains of Listeria monocytogenes in the environment of the packing facility and whole cantaloupes collected from cold storage, and the fact that this is the first documented listeriosis outbreak associated with fresh, whole cantaloupe in the United States, FDA initiated an environmental assessment in conjunction with Colorado state and local officials. FDA, state, and local officials conducted the environmental assessment at Jensen Farms on September 22-23, 2011. The environmental assessment was conducted to gather more information to assist FDA in identifying the factors that potentially contributed to the introduction, growth, or spread of the Listeria monocytogenes strains that contaminated the cantaloupe.
    FDA identified the following factors as those that most likely contributed to the introduction, spread, and growth of Listeria monocytogenes in the cantaloupes:
    There could have been low level sporadic Listeria monocytogenes in the field where the cantaloupe were grown, which could have been introduced into the packing facility
    A truck used to haul culled cantaloupe to a cattle operation was parked adjacent to the packing facility and could have introduced contamination into the facility
    The packing facility’s design allowed water to pool on the floor near equipment and employee walkways
    The packing facility floor was constructed in a manner that made it difficult to clean
    The packing equipment was not easily cleaned and sanitized; washing and drying equipment used for cantaloupe packing was previously used for postharvest handling of another raw agricultural commodity
    There was no pre-cooling step to remove field heat from the cantaloupes before cold storage. As the cantaloupes cooled there may have been condensation that promoted the growth of Listeria monocytogenes
    FDA’s findings regarding this particular outbreak highlight the importance for firms to employ good agricultural and management practices in their packing facilities as well as in growing fields. FDA recommends that firms employ good agricultural and management practices recommended for the growing, harvesting, washing, sorting, packing, storage and transporting of fruits and vegetables sold to consumers in an unprocessed or minimally processed raw form.
    FDA has issued a warning letter to Jensen Farms based on environmental and cantaloupe samples collected during the inspection. FDA’s investigation at Jensen Farms is still considered an open investigation.