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Listeria outbreak appears to be third-most fatal food-borne illness outbreak since Feds began record-keeping

The New York Times reported today that the listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupe sold by Jensen Farms' Rocky Ford Company in Colorado is now the third-most deadly food-borne illness recorded in the U.S. since the early 1970s.  13 deaths have been recorded, with most of the victims being elderly.

The article explained that listeria is often associated with a higher death count because the common bacteria, which lives in soil, can move out of the gastrointestinal system and attack muscle tissue or the spinal cord.  As a result, the typical diarrhea symptoms experienced by younger people can turn into deadly illness in the older or very young populations and among those whose immune system is compromised.  The pathogen is also recognized as a miscarriage risk among pregnant women.

The two more deadly food-borne illness outbreaks recorded in the U.S. also involved listeria:  the 1998-1999 outbreak linked to hotdogs and deli meats, and the 1985 outbreak associated with Mexican-style fresh cheese.  Illness may occur as much as two months after consumption of a tainted product.  The article advised that this pathogen can grow in low temperatures, meaning refrigeration of fresh food does not interfere with its spread.  The authors recommended washing all fresh produce under running water, and suggested that firm produce such as melons should be scrubbed with a produce brush.

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