One more victim of the nationwide outbreak of Listeria infection linked to Colorado cantaloupes died this week, bringing the death toll up to 32.
When the epidemic was declared over in December of last year, it was already the deadliest foodborne illness outbreak in the U.S. in nearly 100 years, having killed 30 of the 146 people sickened, and caused a pregnant woman to miscarry. But while the contaminated cantaloupes – distributed by Jensen Farms – had been long off the market by that time, the disease continued to wreak havoc on its victims, claiming two more lives.
On December 18, 10 days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its final outbreak report, 92-year-old Paul Schwarz of Kansas City died after weeks suffering from listeriosis.
Then late this Sunday night, Sharon Jones, 62, of Castle Rock, Colorado died from complications due to stage IV breast cancer and listeriosis. Listeriosis is especially devastating for individuals with compromised immune systems, making it harder to combat alongside chemotherapy, which weakens the body’s defenses.
Both Schwarz and Jones were confirmed to be part of the outbreak, but unless the CDC updates its final report, their deaths may not be included in the official toll.
According to investigators, traces of Listeria could have come into the packing plant via a truck used to ferry culled cantaloupes to a cattle operation. The bacteria then could have flourished in pooled water, and been tracked and spread around the packing shed, contaminating walkways and equipment.
Corroded equipment, previously used to process potatoes, that was difficult to clean may have been another contributing factor. And the farm’s cantaloupes, warm after harvest, were not cooled before going into cold storage. Condensation on the rind could have promoted the growth of the dangerous bacteria, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation.
The government and produce industry are now conducting research on more effective methods of cantaloupe sterilization and safer growing practices.