Health officials have issued a warning for cantaloupes from a revered melon-producing area of the U.S. state of Colorado amid a bacteria outbreak blamed for four deaths in the state and New Mexico, troubling farmers who depend on sales of the fruit.
The warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came after numerous cases of a strain of Listeria were reported in six states, including at least 11 from Colorado, 10 from New Mexico, two from Texas, and one each from Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The agency said it was the first Listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe in the United States. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration said it had not recalled the melons while it worked to locate the source.
Rocky Ford cantaloupes, named for a region along the old Santa Fe Trail about 130 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of Denver, are prized for their above-average sugar content. W.C. Fields reportedly said bald guys have "a head shaped like a Rocky Ford cantaloupe," and Lucile Ball had the melons delivered to her dressing room.
"This is really silly. You can get Listeria any place. I eat those melons every day," said Kent Lusk, a fifth-generation cantaloupe farmer from Rocky Ford.
Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar said the contamination might not be the cantaloupes, but a truck or other source. But several Colorado grocery chains pulled their supplies as a precaution, and New Mexico issued a voluntary recall. State Environmental Health Bureau inspectors were collecting cantaloupe samples from grocery stores and distributors across New Mexico for laboratory analysis.
Listeriosis is a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems.
Colorado health director Chris Urbina said people who are at high risk included people 60 and older, those with weakened immune systems from transplants and people with chronic diseases. Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion and convulsions. Listeriosis can cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
The CDC warning advised people with cantaloupes at home to see if they came from the Rocky Ford region, and if so, not to eat the melons if they're in a vulnerable group. Health authorities asked people throwing out Rocky Ford cantaloupes to put them in a sealed plastic bag before putting them in the trash.
The fatal cases in New Mexico included a 93-year-old man from Bernalillo County, a 61-year-old woman from Curry County and a 63-year-old man from Bernalillo County. Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the person who died in Colorado was not being identified.
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., and Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.