Listeria—Deadliest Food-Borne Outbreak In A Decade

Despite the recall of contaminated cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado, listeriosis cases have continued to climb in what’s now the deadliest outbreak of food-borne illness in more than a decade in the United States. To date, 13 people have died and 72 people in 18 states have been sickened, the Centers for Disease Control reports

State officials are also investigating three additional deaths—in New Mexico, Kansas, and Wyoming—that may also be linked to tainted cantaloupes from Jensen Farms. (Cantaloupes from other farms are safe to eat.) The new numbers also mean that the outbreak is the third most lethal in recorded history, according to the CDC. In 1985, cheese contaminated with listeria bacteria killed 52 people, and in 1998, listeria-tainted hotdogs claimed 21 lives.

Health officials warn that some consumers may still have recalled melons in their refrigerator and that the contaminated fruit may also have been used in some fruit salads. And because it can take weeks for people to develop symptoms after being exposed to listeria bacteria, officials anticipate that deaths and infections sparked by the tainted cantaloupes will continue to rise.Here's what you need to know to keep your family safe.

What is listeria?

Listeria is an infection caused by bacteria called listeria monocytogenes.  While outbreaks occasionally make the headlines,  listeria exposure is actually pretty common. According to the CDC, most healthy people spontaneously clear the infection in about a week. Yet the symptoms should not be taken lightly. Of the 1,600 reported cases of listeria in this country each year, about 250 people die from the infection. It can cause fatal meningitis or encephalitis, if left untreated. 

Read about the worst foodborne illness outbreaks in recent US history. 

Is the outbreak contained in certain areas?

The CDC says that at this point the particular outbreak has been identified in Colorado, but can happen anywhere. In 2010 there was an outbreak in Texas, tied to locally processed celery.

What causes listeria infections?

The single biggest sources of listeria infections are foods that are contaminated with animal feces or soil. Many outbreaks have been tied to produce. While in this case, cantaloupe is said to be the culprit, listeria can hide in many food sources, such as hot dogs and deli products, as well as unpasteurized milk and products such as cheeses made from raw milk.

What are the symptoms of listeria?

The first signs of food contamination from listeria are intestinal discomfort and diarrhea. Listeria is often accompanied by  flu-like symptoms such as fever, muscle aches and pain. Look for other potential symptoms, such as headaches and neck pain, loss of balance, confusion and disorientation, and even convulsions. If you think you have been exposed to the listeria bacteria, go immediately to your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment. Listeria infections can be diagnosed through cultures drawn from blood work or spinal fluid. A diagnosed case of listeria infection can be treated with antibiotics.

 Find out more about the listeria outbreak.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can be affected by consuming contaminated food that contains the listeria bacteria is at risk.  However pregnant women, older individuals or anyone with a compromised immune system can be more severely impacted by listeria.   The CDC says that in Colorado as in other outbreaks, those who are most severely impacted by listeria infection most likely already have other medical conditions that hinder their ability to ward off infections.

Pregnant women need to take particular precautions because exposure to listeria can cause miscarriage, premature delivery, and fatal infections to the unborn fetus.

What precautions should be taken

Know the source of your food. If you currently have cantaloupe at home, look at the labeling to see where the fruit originated. At this point, the affected cantaloupe has been pinpointed as coming from the Rocky Ford area of Colorado. If you can’t tell by the label, check with your grocer. Many grocers who receive produce from Colorado have already done a recall and taken it off the shelves.

If you do have cantaloupe that may be contaminated, put it in a plastic bag and dispose of it right away, in a sealed trashcan. You want to make sure that people or animals can’t eat it.

Be diligent about washing and rinsing your produce before you eat it. Run it under cool water, and dry it with a paper towel or clean kitchen towel.

Cook raw poultry and meats thoroughly. The Unites States Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests using a food thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your cooked meats. They recommend that most meat be cooked well, to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Avoid unpasteurized milk, or any dairy products such as cheeses that may contain raw milk.

Check the temperature of your refrigerator, to make sure that it is cooling at or below 40 degrees. Your freezer should have a temperature of zero degrees Fahrenheit or below.  A refrigerator that is not cooling at the proper temperature can be a breeding ground for the listeria bacteria.

Food Safety: New methods to prevent botulism.

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