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Listeria Outbreak Kills 13 in US

An operator of a fruit and vegetable stand near Denver holds a California-grown cantaloupe for sale at her business on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011

U.S. health authorities say a nationwide outbreak of the food-borne disease, listeria, has killed 13 people. During the past two months, the deadly bacterium has sickened a total of 72 people who ate contaminated cantaloupe melons.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the outbreak is the worst of its kind in the United States in more than 10 years. Officials say the listeria outbreak started July 31st, and has been reported in 18 U.S. states. The 13 deaths occurred in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, and Maryland.

The bad cantaloupes were traced to Jensen Farms of Colorado. The commercial grower issued a voluntary recall of its Rocky-Ford brand cantaloupes earlier this month.

Although listeria outbreaks are rare, the pathogen is deadlier than more common and well-known food-borne pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.

Listeria contamination occurs most commonly in seafood, processed meats and unpasteurized cheeses, because the deadly bacteria can withstand the cold temperatures of refrigeration. Pregnant women, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are the most vulnerable to listeria, which can take weeks to develop into a life-threatening infection.

Food safety experts say cantaloupes have been involved in nearly 40 outbreaks of foodborne disease over the past 20 years, but this is the first time the melons have been tainted by listeria.