In what is now the second-deadliest food-borne illness outbreak ever in the United States and the first to involve whole, raw fruits or vegetables, 28 people have died and scores more have become ill nationwide after allegedly eating listeria monocytogenes-tainted cantaloupe. Several lawsuits have been filed against Jensen Farms, the Colorado grower of Rocky-Ford brand cantaloupe, and distributors and grocery stores are also named as defendants.
Listeriosis is a rare bacterial infection marked by flu-like symptoms. It primarily affects people with compromised immune systems, such as older adults, pregnant women, and infants, and it can be deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most victims of the outbreak have been over age 60 and nearly all have been hospitalized. At least three pregnant women and one newborn have been diagnosed with listeriosis. One miscarriage attributed to listeriosis has been reported.
Plaintiffs Charles Palmer and his wife, Tammy, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, were among the first to file suit. According to the complaint they filed in state court, Palmer was stricken by listeria and hospitalized in intensive care after consuming Rocky-Ford brand cantaloupe, which he purchased from Walmart.
William Marler of Seattle, who represents the Palmers and several other families affected by the outbreak, said the number of deaths and illnesses CDC has reported is only the “tip of the iceberg.” The CDC said it expected reports of new illnesses to mount even though the Rocky-Ford brand cantaloupe was recalled from stores back in September. It can take up to two months after eating food contaminated with listeria for someone to become ill, the CDC said.
Marler expressed concern that, because of this lag, people may die and women may have miscarriages that are related to listeria without knowing that they should test for listeriosis. “There are a lot of people who have potentially died from listeriosis and no autopsy was performed,” he said. “The same thing goes for miscarriages. There are going to be a number of miscarriages out there where the parents or the hospitals don’t conduct any testing on the fetuses to determine if listeria was to blame.”
An FDA investigation concluded that the Jensen Farms cantaloupe likely were contaminated with listeria in a packing facility, where they were washed, packaged, and stored before distribution. Listeria thrives in cool and damp conditions, which is how FDA investigators described the packing facility’s environment. Investigators also found that neither the facility floor nor the packing equipment was easily cleanable and cantaloupe still warm from the field weren’t precooled before being refrigerated, allowing condensation to form on the skin, which promoted the bacteria’s growth.
“It’s a devastating outbreak, and the fallout to the industry is profound,” said Marler, “but there were things the company could have done that would have helped prevent this outbreak from being as devastating as it is.”