Colorado department of health finds Listeria outbreak strain on Jensen Farms’ cantaloupe

Colorado health officials have announced that product samples from a cantaloupe farm epidemiologically linked to an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes, which has killed at least two individuals and sickened at least 22 others, have been found to contain the outbreak strain. Colorado health officials also announced friday that additional samples taken from other producers in the region showed no pathogenic Listeria contamination.

"Cantaloupe samples from the refrigerator of a listeria patient’s home, as well as samples obtained from various retail outlets last week, have the same DNA fingerprints as the listeria that has infected 12 Colorado residents," the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement on Friday.

"All of the listeria-positive cantaloupe samples at this time appear to have been grown at Jensen Farms."

AP reports that Colorado cantaloupe farmers are worried about market impacts. Rocky Ford region farmer Greg Smith said that media fallout from the outbreak has resulted in him laying off his lone farm stand employee as his sales dropped substantially.

Angry at reporters and camera crews reporting on the tainted melons, Smith said, “You’ve basically put a .30-caliber bullet between our eyes.”

Colorado Chief Medical Officer Chris Urbina said he understands the anger of other farmers who feel tarnished by the outbreak. However, health officials had to act on what they knew at the time — and the victims had reported eating cantaloupe from Rocky Ford, he said.
“We now know that it’s one farm in Holly. It should be reassuring to growers that we’ve identified the grower,” Urbina said.

Christine Obert, a Lakewood teacher, said Friday she rushed to her local King Soopers grocery store earlier this week to buy Rocky Ford cantaloupes after she heard about the recall. Several chains have pulled the melons off shelves, not wanting to take chances. “I was afraid they were going to pull them off the shelves. I believe in supporting our local growers, and those are my favorite cantaloupe. I drove through Rocky Ford and bought their melon. I had some last night,” she said.

Cody Edge, 21, snacked on a granola bar outside a grocery store and said he likes cantaloupe at any meal but won’t eat it now after the outbreak. He said he had been unaware of the recall. “I’m not going to eat it after that,” Edge said.

Tammie Palmer told The Associated Press Thursday her 71-year-old husband remains hospitalized after eating contaminated cantaloupe. She has filed a lawsuit against Jensen Farms and Wal Mart, where the family said they purchased the fruit. "He wasn’t able to talk to me for five days. When I talked to him, his eyes rolled into the back of his head. It’s been a nightmare," she said.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.