30 dead, 139 sick from listeria in cantaloupe; a history of US food safety disasters

Before Al Gore invented the Internet in 1994, there was this thing called paper, which was useful for keeping records.

Those with a fetish in the macabre or statistics may care that the listeria-in-cantaloupe outbreak, which has now killed 30 and sickened 139, pales in comparison to past outbreaks.

Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases told Elizabeth Weise of USA Today the deadliest documented foodborne illness outbreak in the United States was in the winter of 1924-1925, when typhoid in raw oysters from New York City killed approximately 150 people and sickened more than 1,500.

The second largest outbreak linked to food occurred in Boston in 1911. Then, streptococcus in raw, unpasteurized milk killed 48 people and sickened more than 2,000. The disease was described as "septic sore throat’ at the time, Tauxe says. Similar but smaller outbreaks like this one led to a national move to pasteurize milk in 1924 by the U.S. Public Health Service.

In 1922 in Portland, Ore., another outbreak of "septic sore throat" killed 22 people and sickened 487. That round of streptococcus was also linked to raw, unpasteurized milk.

And in 1919, an outbreak of botulism from olives put up in glass jars in California killed at least 15 people in three states. It resulted in a major change in how items were canned so that botulism would no longer be a problem.

But, Americans don’t want medical care like that practiced in 1919, nor should food production be rooted in some nostalgic past. Every death and illness from food is tragic, especially if preventable; what can be done to prevent this happening again? Telling consumers to wash cantaloupes in bleach is not a solution.

A table of cantaloupe-related outbreaks is available at http://bites.ksu.edu/cantaloupe-related-outbreaks.