Health officials expect the number of people sickened by the listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe from one Colorado farm to continue growing through October. The number of people killed now stands at thirteen. Colorado Public Radio Health Reporter Eric Whitney has more on why the outbreak is lasting so long.
CPR HEALTH REPORTER ERIC WHITNEY: Colorado's health department first identified the outbreak in late August. It took about two weeks for the source to be narrowed down to cantaloupe, then cantaloupe from southeastern Colorado, and finally to a single grower, Jensen Farms outside Holly.
Jensen issued a recall September 14th, but new cases of illnesses and deaths continue to roll in.
Dr. Thomas Friedan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta explains why this outbreak is lasting so long.
CDC DIRECTOR DR. THOMAS FRIEDAN: Listeria is an unusual bacteria in a couple of ways. One, what's called the incubation time, the time between when you consume it and get sick is longer than it is for many other bacteria. It can be from one to three weeks, it can even be two months or more in some cases.
REPORTER: That means people who ate Jensen Farms cantaloupe before the recall was issued may just now be feeling symptoms.
And just because the melons were pulled from stores two weeks ago doesn't mean people still don't have it in their homes and refrigerators.
FRIEDAN: unlike most other bacteria, the listeria in the cantaloupe will continue to grow in your refrigerator, that's unusual.
REPORTER: The outbreak is already the most deadly foodborne contamination seen in the U.S. In the last 10 years. It's sickened people in at least 18 states.
Still unknown is how listeria, which typically lives in animal hosts, got into Jensen Farm cantaloupes. Until now, listeria had never been seen in cantaloupe. Shari McGary(sp) with the federal Food and Drug Administration says that agency has taken the lead in identifying how the melons got contaminated.
SHERRI MCGARRY, M.D., FDA : some of those things that we'll be looking at are any potential animal intrusion, water quality, we'll be looking at the growing practices, the harvesting practice, packing and potentially rinsing the cantaloupes themselves. And how it was stored, to see how this contamination may have occurred, and what we want to do is we really want to prevent this from happening in the future.
REPORTER: Meanwhile, at least five lawsuits have been filed seeking damages from the outbreak. Attorney Bill Marler says his Seattle-based firm, Marler Clark, has filed two suits in Colorado courts, and one each in Texas, Oklahoma and Maryland. All of the cases are on behalf of victims who've survived, except the one in Oklahoma.
Marler says his firm is suing three entities: Jensen Farms, the company that distributed their cantaloupe, and retailers that sold them.
ATTORNEY BILL MARLER: The chain of distribution is ultimately responsible for selling a product that's not contaminated with a pathogen that can sicken or kill you. Ultimately between the consumer and those three entities, it is the fault of all three entities that led to the consumer's illness or death.
REPORTER: Marler said the amount of damages being sought in each case is different due to different circumstances, but the suits seek compensation for medical expenses and pain and suffering. He says fifteen more families affected by the outbreak are working with him and more lawsuits are likely.
Colorado cantaloupe growers say they're being harmed by publicity about the outbreak, even though it's been linked to only Jensen Farms. A spokesperson for the farm says its owners are not commenting at this time.
[Photo: Centers for Disease Control]