Three additional deaths are suspected, and the long incubation period could mean more illnesses.
Bill Sackett stands next to cantaloupes that are not subject to the recent recall at his Rocky Ford, Colo. farm market. Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., about 100 miles from Rocky Ford, has issued a recall of cantaloupe following a Listeria outbreak that has spread to several states.
WASHINGTON - Health officials say that as many as 16 people have died from possible listeria illnesses traced to Colorado cantaloupes, the deadliest food outbreak in more than a decade.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that 72 illnesses, including 13 deaths, were linked to the tainted fruit. State and local officials said they were investigating three additional deaths that may be connected.
The CDC said Tuesday that it had confirmed two deaths in Texas and one death each in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. Last week, the CDC reported two deaths in Colorado, four deaths in New Mexico, one in Oklahoma and one in Maryland.
New Mexico officials said Tuesday they were investigating a fifth death, while health authorities in Kansas and Wyoming said they were investigating one additional death each possibly linked to the tainted fruit, which was widely distributed, including in Minnesota.
Listeria is more deadly than well-known pathogens like salmonella and E. coli, although those outbreaks generally cause many more illnesses.
Listeria generally sickens only the elderly, pregnant women and others with compromised immune systems.
Dr. Robert Tauxe of the CDC says the number of illnesses and deaths will probably grow in coming weeks because the symptoms of listeria don't always show up right away. It can take four weeks or more for a person to fall ill after eating food contaminated with listeria.
"That long incubation period is a real problem," Tauxe said. "People who ate a contaminated food two weeks ago or even a week ago could still be falling sick weeks later."
The outbreak has been traced to Jensen Farms in Holly, Colo., which recalled the tainted cantaloupes earlier this month. The cantaloupes from Jensen Farms were shipped from July 29 through Sept. 10 to Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming.