Cantaloupe Listeria Outbreak Deadliest in U.S. in a Decade

At least 15 people had died and more than 84 have been sickened as the result of a Listeria outbreak traced to cantaloupes from Colorado-based Jensen Farms. That makes it the deadliest U.S. foodborne illness outbreak since 1998, when 21 people died after eating Listeria-contaminated processed meat products, and the third-worst such outbreak since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recording data in the 1970s.

Although the cantaloupe was recalled Sept. 14, the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) say it’s possible some contaminated fruit may still be in markets or homes. They have issued a warning that all cantaloupe from Jensen Farms should be thrown out.

This is the first Listeriaoutbreak linked to cantaloupe in the U.S. It’s also the first big foodborne illness outbreak since the FDA officially launched its new Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network, which has assumed all the FDA’s responsibilities for foodborne illness outbreak investigations. In the past, the FDA’s response to outbreaks of foodborne illness has been disseminated among a number of different offices. That fragmentation, many believe, has played a role in slow response times and unclear messages about the foods responsible for outbreaks.

The CORE Network’s staff includes a multidisciplinary team of epidemiologists, veterinarians, microbiologists, environmental health specialists, emergency coordinators, and risk communications specialists, led by chief medical officer Kathleen F. Gensheimer, MD, MPH, a nationally recognized public health leader who was recently the state epidemiologist for Maine.

“FDA is conducting a root-cause investigation and environmental assessment at Jensen Farms,” a release from the CORE Network reported. “This includes the on-site expertise of FDA and state of Colorado microbiologists, environmental health specialists, veterinarians, and investigative officers working directly with Jensen Farms to find how the recalled cantaloupes became contaminated with Listeria.

The experts are assessing the fields, the growing conditions, and the environment. They are also taking samples and will determine the most likely cause of contamination and identify potential controls to help prevent future outbreaks.”

“It’s a step in the right direction, to have one senior person responsible in the position of chief medical officer, along with a full-time staff that can prepare for and respond to outbreak situations,” said Purnendu C. Vasavada, PhD, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and a member of Food Quality’s editorial advisory board. “There are always going to be some technical problems in terms of identifying the right pathogen and the link to a particular food, but at least by centralizing investigations and not having it spread around, the FDA will be able to react much more quickly. Health can be at risk and commodities can also take a lot of hits in these situations, so getting the right information out in a short time is important.”

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