Listeria outbreak claims 15 lives in US

By Naomi Spencer
3 October 2011

In the deadliest food poisoning outbreak in the US in more than a decade, at least 15 people have died after eating cantaloupes contaminated with listeria. The outbreak once again reveals the vulnerability of millions of people to food-borne illness, as government regulatory agencies have their budgets cut.

As of Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 84 cases of listeriosis linked to the cantaloupes across 19 states, and confirmed 15 deaths. State and local public health agencies are investigating several other deaths that may be connected to the outbreak, and have warned that the death toll may rise further because of the long period the illness can take to develop after tainted food is consumed.

The cantaloupes associated with the outbreak have all been traced back to Jensen Farms, a Colorado farm that sells under the well-known brand Rocky Ford. Inspectors with the federal Food and Drug Administration, the agency responsible for food safety oversight, are investigating the farm’s water supply and the possibility that animals may have carried the pathogen into the fields. Irrigation ditches and wells throughout the region draw water from the Arkansas River.

The CDC reported illnesses starting as far back as July 31. Yet because the FDA has no authority to initiate a mandatory recall, it was not until September 14 that Jensen Farms issued a voluntary recall of the produce.

As the American food market has grown more complex and internationalized, oversight programs have been steadily dismantled, defunded, and stripped of enforcement capabilities. In the past five years, millions of Americans have suffered bouts of food poisoning from basic staple foods such as peanuts, spinach, beef, and eggs. In several of these outbreaks, regulators had long been aware of contamination problems at operations and had done nothing to prevent mass illness.

Ordinary people with no way of detecting pathogens in the food they purchase are continually exposed to hazards that neither they nor the governmental agencies have any legal authority to prevent. Instead, the FDA, CDC, and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are limited to issuing requests that companies voluntarily warn the public and recall tainted products. In effect, agencies charged with safeguarding public health are relegated to acting as public relations liaisons of corporations.

Listeria is a pathogen that poses particular risk to the elderly, pregnant women, the very young, and those with weakened immune systems. It can cause severe illness requiring hospitalization, paralysis, miscarriage, and death. The bacteria can also spread throughout the body, to muscles, the spinal cord and brain, leading to meningitis and other deadly complications.

The CDC states that pregnant women are 20 times as likely as other adults to become seriously ill, although the agency has not released information on miscarriages or stillbirths attributable to the outbreak.

The outbreak has devastated the lives of dozens of families. In an interview with Denver channel ABC 7 News September 15, Tammie Palmer, wife of Colorado Springs food poisoning victim Charles Palmer, described the onset of listeriosis. The Palmers have filed a lawsuit against Jensen Farms and Wal-Mart, where they purchased the cantaloupe.

The 71-year-old Charles ate the fruit on August 19. Eleven days later, Tammie said, her husband could not get out of bed because of a massive headache. On August 31, he fell unconscious and was hospitalized. “He coughed and I said, ‘Are you OK?’ And his eyes started to roll in the back of his head,” Tammie said. “He couldn’t talk or anything so that’s when I called 911.”

After weeks in the hospital, Tammie said, “He’d been on four real strong antibiotics. I thought after two days he would make some kind of improvement… I just can’t believe a cantaloupe could make you that sick. Deathly ill. Deathly ill. It’s really scary.” Charles remains “semi-lucid” and paralyzed. He will likely remain in a wheelchair and require long-term care for the rest of his life. “It’s horrible, it’s scary,” Tammie said. “I don’t think he’ll ever be able to drive again because of the confusion. It’s hard to see him in bed not doing anything.”

With the lawsuit, Tammie explained, she wants “people to realize that you can’t trust some of these places where we purchase our food. I think there should be some kind of precaution…that food is tested before it’s put out on shelves for people to purchase.”

Some 800 cases of listeria infection are confirmed by government agencies across the US each year, and typically three or four outbreaks are identified. In 1998-99, the second-deadliest listeria outbreak on record claimed 14 lives and at least four miscarriages; in 1985, a wave of listeriosis claimed between 52 and 84 lives. These previous outbreaks were associated with processed cheeses and meats.

The present spate of illnesses is relatively unusual in that it has been attributed to unprocessed produce. However, fresh sprouts caused an outbreak in 2009, and celery was the source of many sicknesses in 2010. In part, the rise in produce-associated listeriosis is attributable to better testing methods, which in itself suggests that serious food poisoning is far more prevalent in the US than is generally reported. The CDC estimates that as many as 81 million cases of food-related illnesses occur each year in the US, causing 300,000 hospitalizations and as many as 9,000 deaths.

Contamination is rampant throughout the nation’s food system. On Friday, the FDA announced that Salinas, California-based True Leaf Farms was recalling processed lettuce over possible listeria contamination.

Just two days earlier, Tyson, the country’s largest meat processor, issued a recall of more than 131,000 pounds of ground beef in 14 states with a use-date from September 12. The meat was found to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria. As with many such recalls, it is likely that thousands of people have already been sickened by the product.

In one of the largest meat recalls in US history, on September 11 Cargill Meat Solutions Corp. recalled 185,000 pounds of ground turkey tainted with salmonella. The CDC recorded 119 people infected with the pathogen in 32 states, and one death. The particular strain, Salmonella Heidelberg, is especially potent because it is resistant to the most commonly prescribed antibiotics, making hospitalization and treatment failure more likely.

The Obama administration has repeatedly pledged stronger oversight for food safety, while slashing already thin budgets for regulatory agencies. The food safety bill signed into law in January requires the FDA to write new standards by next year for producers of fresh fruits and vegetables. The rules will cover sanitation, testing of irrigation systems, and animals carrying pathogens into fields.

Enforcing any of these new standards is rendered impossible, however, with across-the-board budget freezes and cuts to federal, state, and local agencies. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the FDA will need $1.4 billion in new funding to execute the mandates of the law, including hiring hundreds of inspectors.

At the same time, congressional proposals call for cutting the FDA by as much as $241 million, and the USDA’s meat inspection budget by $88 million. President Obama has called for cutting the USDA’s inspection program by $9 million.

“Writing rules is inexpensive; enforcing them is expensive,” former associate commissioner of the FDA David Acheson commented to the New York Times August 23. “There will be a public health impact because enforcement won’t be to the extent they want to do it.”

Presently the FDA has only 1,800 inspectors trained to visit food establishments, but many of them are also tasked with overseeing the massive pharmaceutical industry and imported food market. The agency has very little experience with farm operations.

Overall, FDA inspectors physically check only 1 percent of imported food and only visit one quarter of the more than 156,000 FDA-regulated domestic facilities one time in the course of a year.