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Listeria Outbreak Tied To Colorado Cantaloupes; 13 Known Dead

A label consumers might find on the cantaloupes.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration
A label consumers might find on the cantaloupes.

"The number of deaths linked to Colorado-grown cantaloupes keeps climbing, and it soon could become the second-deadliest U.S. outbreak of a food-borne illness," The Denver Post reports.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Post says, "13 deaths have now been confirmed, and three more deaths — in New Mexico, Wyoming and Kansas — soon could be confirmed as listeria-caused. ... The worst recorded listeria outbreak in the U.S. was in 1985, when 52 people died after eating tainted cheese."

The CDC previously reported that the outbreak has been traced to "Rocky Ford Cantaloupe shipped by Jensen Farms." It added that "Jensen Farms is voluntarily recalling Rocky Ford Cantaloupe shipped from July 29 through September 10, 2011, and distributed to at least 17 states with possible further distribution."

The company says that "the whole cantaloupes have a green and white sticker that reads: 'Product of USA- Frontera Produce-Colorado Fresh-Rocky Ford- Cantaloupe' or a gray, yellow, and green sticker that reads: 'Jensen Farms-Sweet Rocky Fords.' If the whole cantaloupe is unlabeled, please contact your retail store for sourcing information. Jensen Farms is requesting any consumer that may have one of these cantaloupes to please destroy the products."

One of the problems with listeria, as NPR's Paul Brown reports for our Newscast desk, is that "symptoms including diarrhea and fever may not show up for days or even weeks after the food has been eaten."

Paul adds that the CDC says listeria is more dangerous than other better-known food-borne diseases such as E. coli and poses a threat in particular to the elderly, very young and people with compromised immune systems.

It's important, officials say, to wash produce completely — before cutting it up — because a knife blade can transfer the bacteria from the surface to the flesh.

The CDC has more information about listeria posted here. It writes that other symptoms include fever and muscle aches.

Update at 2:55 p.m. ET. More Cases Likely In Coming Days And Weeks, CDC Says.

From The Salt blog:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Thomas Frieden said in a news conference today that officials "do anticipate a rising number of cases in days and weeks to come."

Update at 1 p.m. ET. Wash With "Three Parts Water To One Part Vinegar":

At The Salt blog, NPR's April Fulton reminds us that the best thing to wash cantaloupes, other produce and vegetables in is a simple solution that's three parts water to one part vinegar. Also important to do: keep cutting boards and knives "cleaned and separated," wash your hands before and after handling food, make sure the refrigerator is cooled to at least 40 degrees and "clean up spills on the counter and fridge right away."

Update at 8:20 a.m. ET. Earlier this month, Scott Hensley at the Shots blog posted about "Why You Should Wash A Melon Before Chowing Down." As he said:

"There is a good reason to rinse off that melon: germs. The knife that cuts through the melon's tough exterior can transfer nasty bugs to the sweet flesh you do consume."

And for tips on how to wash produce, see this story from 2006.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.