Eleven of Colorado’s 13 Listeriosis cases are linked to a multi-state outbreak with two more in El Paso County. The Health Department says they are working to determine if they’re related.
Now a total of 16 people across 5 states have been infected. The outbreak is being blamed for four deaths in Colorado and New Mexico; one of those in El Paso County. Including the new two cases, there have been four infected in the County.
Following the outbreak of Listeria linked to cantaloupe from Rocky Ford, the El Paso County Public Health Department is encouraging people at high risk of infection to take precautions.
"The only way to completely eliminate the risk is to simply not eat the food," said Dr. Bernadette Albanese, medical director of El Paso County Public Health.
People at high risk for Listeria infection include people age 60 and older, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems from transplants or certain chronic diseases, immunosuppressive therapies or medications.
Dr. Chris Urbina, chief medical officer, said, "People at high risk for Listeria infection should not eat cantaloupe from the Rocky Ford growing region. The department expects additional test results later this week that may help identify the specific source of the cantaloupe linked to the multi-state outbreak.”
Health officials say those in the high risk groups should avoid eating the cantaloupe from the Rocky Ford region. If you are unsure where it came from, check the label or ask the store. If you already purchased cantaloupe dispose of it by placing it in a closed plastic bag and then in a sealed trash can.
"Listeria is pretty persistant it can remain on surfaces and contaminate surfaces," Albanese said.
If the cantaloupe was stored in your refrigerator, clean out your refrigerator with mild dish-washing detergent and water, as the bacteria lives in the environment and can spread.
All the talk about Listeria has some people in Rocky Ford wondering, why all the fuss?
"I think it's just over-hyped, people just not taking care of their fruit properly. And all they need to do is wash it and they will be fine,” said Jock Harmon, a consumer from Penrose, Colorado.
Rocky Ford producer Brian Knapp agrees. He has been growing cantaloupes at Knapp Farms for 15 years. He says Listeria is something people have always lived with.
“It's just a simple bacteria that can easily be washed off the fruit or vegetable or cantaloupe and cleaned up. There is no reason not to eat your cantaloupes,” said Knapp.
While Listeria is still causing some people to not buy the fruit, health officials say those who are not at high risk can still eat the cantaloupes. The disease mostly affects those people in the categories. Healthy adults under age 60 rarely develop this illness. But people still need to take precautions.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. Take it home wash it, eat it, put it in the refrigerator and you are good to go,” said Deleith Campos, a consumer born in Rocky Ford.
Consumers and food preparers should wash their hands before and after handling any melon. The surface of melons such as cantaloupes should be washed and dried with a clean cloth or paper towel before cutting. Cut melon should be promptly refrigerated at less than 41 F / 5 C (32-34 F is optimal for cut melon storage.) Cut melons left at room temperature for more than four hours should be discarded.
CDC officials say at this point they don’t’ know if the bacteria has infected the inside of the cantaloupes or if it’s only on the outside, which is typical for fruits and vegetables. So consumers are still taking some risks. But again, those who are not in those high risk groups, rarely develop the disease.
Health investigators are working to find out exactly what part of the cantaloupes are causing people to get sick.
Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar says it might not be the cantaloupe, but a contaminated truck or other source. Additional tests this week will help identify the specific source of the cantaloupe.
Rocky Ford is a major supplier of cantaloupe in the region and farmers in southeast Colorado depend heavily on the crop.
Rocky Ford producer Brian Knapp says the outbreak scare won’t affect their wholesale, because they stopped picking and shipping cantaloupes weeks ago. He says they are however seeing a decrease in sales of the melons at their farmer’s market.
In general, CDC guidance about Listeria advises that people can decrease their risk of Listeria infection by avoiding deli meats unless reheated to an internal temperature of 165 F, refrigerated pâté or meat spreads, refrigerated smoked seafood, and soft cheeses such as queso fresco and brie unless they are made with pasteurized milk.
Eating food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes can cause Listeriosis, an uncommon but potentially fatal infection. Symptoms of Listeriosis can include fever and muscle aches, and also can include diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion and convulsions. Listeriosis also can cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
Antibiotics given promptly can cure the illness and prevent infection of a fetus. Even with prompt treatment, some Listeria infections result in death. This is particularly likely in older adults and in people with other serious medical problems.
Anyone with more questions about Listeria can call the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment at 1-877-462-2911.