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Listeria hits Kansas harder than Missouri

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The national cantaloupe listeria crisis has been less severe in Missouri than in most other states, but uncertainty lingers because the bacteria's long incubation period means more cases can be expected throughout October.

Vernon County Health Department Administrator Beth Swopes said diseased cantaloupes from Jensen Farms in Colorado had already arrived in Nevada when the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Missouri Department of Health & Senior Services announced the recall Sept. 14.

"All the cantaloupes had been stopped at the stores before County Environmen-tal Public Health Specialist Steve Durnell even showed up," Swopes said Monday. "They were not put out."

Friday and Monday efforts were unsuccessful to contact Woods Supermarkets Produce Director Tony Gingerich of Bolivar and Gene Marsh, head of produce for Pyramid Foods in Springfield, the parent company of Ramey Supermarket.

Walmart spokeswoman Kayla Wahling of Bentonville, Ark., said none of her company's supermarkets in the state of Missouri or in Fort Scott, Kan., had stocked any of the tainted Sweet Rocky Ford or USA Frontera Produce Colorado Fresh Rocky Ford melons.

"Our food safety team has been working closely with public health officials to help determine what the likely source was," said Wahling, adding that a Hays, Kan., Walmart had sold some. "The only products removed were from the Rocky Ford region.

"We continue to provide our customers with cantaloupes from areas not affected by this investigation."

CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell said the crisis "is still under investigation by the Food & Drug Admnistration regarding what could have potentially started this outbreak" in 19 states.

"Essentially, it is ongoing," Russell said Monday from Atlanta. "This is the first food-borne outbreak of listeria associated with cantaloupe that we are aware of. The best way to characterize this would be as a multi-state food-borne outbreak."

Until recently, listeria had usually been carried by unpasteurized milk, soft meats and cheeses and other contaminated vegetables, the CDC said on its Website Monday.

The agency said 84 people had been infected with any of the four strains of listeria monocytogenes. Fifteen had died -- five in New Mexico, three in Colorado, two in Texas and one each in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Maryland, Kansas and Missouri.

There were 17 cases in Colorado, 14 in Texas, 13 in New Mexico, 11 in Oklahoma, six in Nebraska, five in Kansas, three in Missouri, two each in Wisconsin, Wyoming and Indiana and one each in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.

Officials say the most vulnerable people are the elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems, explaining that many others who ingest the bacteria never show any symptoms.

More severe cases involve fever, intense headaches, nausea, vomiting and signs of meningeal irrigation like a stiff neck.

Between July 29 and Sept. 10, Jensen Farms, near Holly in southeast Colorado, shipped more than 2.7 million bad cantaloupes, or over 300,000 cases with nine per case, according to reports.

The illness listeriosis' incubation period ranges from three to 70 days, averages three weeks to develop symptoms and may affect the brain, spinal cord or bloodstream, references say.

Missouri's only fatality to date is of a 94-year-old man near Springfield. Its other cases have been at St. Louis and Kansas City.

Reflecting that information, State Health & Senior Services Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Lapine said most of Missouri's poison melons went to the east, northwest and southwest regions of the state.

"We urge anyone, especially those who are elderly or pregnant or those who have a compromised immune system, to consult a doctor at the outset of any of the symptoms associated with this illness," Lapine said by email.

"Basic sanitary measures such as using only pasteurized dairy products, eating cooked meats and washing hands thoroughly before preparing foods offer the best protection. You may wish to avoid such foods as soft cheeses and raw hot dogs.

"Although the risk of listeriosis associated with foods from deli counters is relatively low, pregnant women and immuno-suppressed persons may wish to avoid these foods or thoroughly reheat cold cuts before eating."

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