Another strain of listeria has been identified in last year’s deadly outbreak tied to contaminated Colorado cantaloupe, which sickened 147 in 28 states and killed at least 30 people. News of the new listeria strain hit the media just as the first crop of melons since last fall’s cantaloupe crisis hit store shelves.
According to MSNBC, the new strain was found last September on cut cantaloupe in the refrigerator of a Colorado home, but state health officials failed to send federal authorities a sample because the listeria strain didn’t match with strains from any known victims in the state. Colorado health officials finally sent a sample to the federal PulseNet monitoring system last month after a food safety lawyer from Seattle requested state health records related to another victim of the contaminated cantaloupe.
After receiving the belated sample, federal authorities discovered it was identical to a rare strain of listeria blamed for sickening a Montana man last fall. That man died in January, but investigators haven’t determined whether his death was brought about by the listeria. If it turns out listeria caused the Montana man’s death, the official outbreak toll will rise to 31.
Delayed reporting of the strain could have caused health officials to miss other victims, one Colorado epidemiologist told MSNBC. The new strain brings the total number of listeria strains linked to the Colorado cantaloupe to five.
Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) traced the 2011 outbreak to Jensen Farms, a family-run cantaloupe farm in Holly, Colorado. The company had scored a high 95 on health inspections, but in an effort to improve further, they followed the advice of Bio Food Safety Inc., a professional food safety auditor, and replaced their cantaloupe washing equipment with a used, hard-to-clean potato washer.
That switch ultimately led to the cantaloupes becoming contaminated because it replaced the system of cleaning the fruit in recirculating chlorinated water with a single pass under a stream of water. The farm has filed for bankruptcy and is not growing cantaloupe this year.
Fifteen other Colorado cantaloupe growers, however, are working to restore consumer confidence in their “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes, which are known for their distinct sweetness brought about by the region’s hot, sunny days and cool nights. In addition to trademarking the name “Rocky Ford” for their melons, the Colorado farmers also invested nearly $1 million in consolidated washing and packing facilities, improved other processes affecting food safety, and implemented better tracking systems.