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Cantaloupe Illness And Death Toll May Keep Climbing, CDC Says

As of Tuesday night, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 55 people in 14 states have become infected with one of the strains of Listeria monocytogenes tied to cantaloupes grown at Jensen Farms' production fields in Granada, Colo.

Eight deaths have been reported, two in Colorado, one in Maryland, four in New Mexico, and one in Oklahoma.

And there may be more illnesses to come. That's because listeria infections can stay in the gut for up to two months before causing symptoms, CDC says, so not everyone may know that they've been infected yet.

It's the first time listeria has been found in cantaloupe, and that's pretty weird, says CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell. "It's usually found in moist, cold places," she says, which is why outbreaks often involve cold cuts. The investigation is continuing.

Earlier this week, the FDA confirmed that the disease-causing listeria was found in Jensen Farms' Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe taken from a store in the Denver area. The bacteria were also found on equipment and cantaloupe at the company's packing facility, although it is still unclear how the cantaloupe became contaminated. (For a list of retailers, check here.)

It's just one more reason why it's wise to wash and dry your produce before cutting it up, because your knife can transfer bacteria from the rind to the fruit.

CDC says most people who got sick are over 60 years old or have health conditions that weaken the immune system. Fifty-nine percent of them are female and at least 43 people have been hospitalized.

The company recalled its cantaloupes last week, and said in statement on the company's website: "Our hearts go out to those individuals and their families who have been affected by this terrible situation."

Meanwhile, another cantaloupe recall tied to foodborne illness is back in the news, with a legal twist: The company involved is suing the FDA.

Back in March, at the FDA's request, Del Monte recalled cantaloupe tied to a salmonella outbreak.

But in a bold move, the company sued the government this summer after FDA issued an import alert blocking it from bringing in cantaloupe from the same Guatemalan farm connected to the recall.

Del Monte's suit argues that the FDA's restrictions on imports damage its reputation. As The New York Times reports today, the company also says that the government's outbreak investigation wasn't good enough because it never actually found pathogens on the melons.

"It's got to be a comprehensive and reliable investigation, and in our opinion, this was neither," Dennis Christou, vice president of marketing for Del Monte Fresh Produce, tells the Times.

Disease expert Michael Osterholm fired back that the evidence tying the outbreak to Del Monte was strong nonetheless. Many outbreaks never find contaminated food because it has been consumed or discarded before it can be tested, he told the Times.

Just to put it in perspective, at least one in six Americans suffers from a foodborne illness every year, 3,000 die, and 128,000 are hospitalized.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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