Killer Cantaloupe: What You Need to Know About Listeria Outbreaks

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At least 13 are already dead in what the CDC has named the deadliest food outbreak in the United States in more than a decade

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The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has confirmed that 13 deaths in a number of states are linked to a batch of tainted cantaloupes that originated at Jensen Farms in Holly, Colorado. Officials are investigating three other deaths that may be connected, and at least 72 people in 18 states have fallen ill, according to the latest Associated Press report. Even though this is already the deadliest food outbreak the United States has seen in more than a decade, the worst may be yet to come. "[T]he story hasn't even peaked yet," Maryn McKenna, a well-known reporter on disease outbreaks, wrote earlier this evening on her Wired blog, Superbug.

Listeria is more dangerous than other pathogens because it's aggressive in escaping the gastrointestinal tract.

Often carried by animals, listeria bacteria tend to grow in muddy, moist conditions. While the cantaloupe is known for carrying pathogens -- the fruit has been associated with at least 10 outbreaks in the past decade -- listeria poisoning is rare. It's also more deadly than E. coli, salmonella, and other well-known pathogens. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unsure how the cantaloupes picked up listeria, but officials are investigating animals and the water supply at Jensen Farms after tracing the pathogens back.

Listeria is more dangerous than some of the other pathogens that move through our food supply on occasion because it's aggressive in escaping the gastrointestinal tract, according to the New York Times story on the outbreak. The bacteria can "attack muscle tissue or the spinal cord, leading to much more severe illnesses like meningitis," the paper reported. "For that reason, the death rate in listeria outbreaks is often much higher than with other forms of food-borne bacteria."

One of the biggest concerns at the moment is that nobody is sure how far the tainted cantaloupes have spread. While Jensen Farms has said it shipped cantaloupes -- five to 15 melons per crate, 300,000 crates -- to 25 states, related illnesses have already been discovered in states that were not on the farms' shipping list. The only solution: Toss your melons. "If it's not Jensen Farms, it's OK to eat," Thomas R. Frieden, the CDC director and Atlantic contributor, told the AP. "But if you can't confirm it's not Jensen Farms, then it's best to throw it out."

While not all of the Jensen cantaloupes are marked, there are some labels you should definitely avoid: 'Colorado Grown,' 'Sweet Rocky Fords,' 'Jensenfarms.com,' and 'Distributed by Fronters Produce.' But that's only for cantaloupes you've already brought home. For those out shopping, cantaloupes currently available at your neighborhood grocer should be safe. The last melons shipped from Jensen Farms went out on September 10, and most have a shelf life of just two weeks. But for those who have consumed cantaloupe sometime this month, be aware of possible symptoms, which include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, and nausea. Because the incubation period for listeria can stretch for more than a month, the FDA expects to see new cases all the way through October.

Image: REUTERS/STR New.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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