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Second Colorado Death in Multistate Listeria Outbreak

Cantaloupe grower Jensen Farms faces more lawsuits

Food Safety News

by Dan Flynn

Sep 21, 2011

The death Tuesday of another victim of the cantaloupe-caused Listeria outbreak has been confirmed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Shelly Occhipinti-Krout, 48, of Parker, CO died at Parker Adventist Hospital Tuesday morning, three weeks after being infected with Listeria from eating cantaloupe.

Her death -- the second in Colorado -- raises the number confirmed fatalities in the multistate outbreak to at least five. Two people have died in New Mexico and one in Oklahoma.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported 35 outbreak-associated cases of listeriosis in 10 states since the Sept. 14 recall of Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupes by Colorado's Jensen Farms.

Most of the people infected have required hospitalization, and tests are pending to determine if several more listeriosis-caused deaths are connected to the outbreak. The latest victim in Colorado was a relatively young woman, which is unusual because Listeria is more likely to claim the lives of the elderly.

That was evident three years ago when Canada experienced a multi-province Listeria outbreak caused by deli meats from a Maple Leaf Foods processing plant in Toronto. Before the outbreak ran its course, there were 23 deaths among the 57 confirmed illnesses, a fatality rate of 40 percent.

Those who died ranged in age from 29 to 98. The victims' mean age was 75, and the median age was 78.

Everyone who died had underlying health problems, and 84 percent were living in some kind of senior or institutionalized housing.

A similar profile may be emerging from the multistate Listeria outbreak caused by contaminated cantaloupe. Those infected range in age from 35 to 96, with a median age of 81. Most are over 60 and have health conditions that weaken the immune system, according to the CDC.

The latest lawsuit against Colorado's Jensen Farms has been filed by 84-year-old Herbert Stevens and his wife, Elaine, from Littleton, CO.

Like 71-year-old Charles Palmer -- the first to file a lawsuit against Jensen Farms -- Stevens reported buying the producer's cantaloupe in early August from a local retailer and subsequently becoming seriously ill.

Stevens spiked a fever of nearly 103 degrees and had to be rushed to the hospital via an ambulance. He has not been able to return home since being admitted a month ago to Colorado's Littleton Adventist Hospital, and now is at a skilled nursing center.

The Stevens lawsuit was filed in Colorado's Arapahoe County District Court by the couple's attorneys, John Riley and Bill Marler -- the same team representing Palmer.

Riley is with the Greenwood, CO-based law firm of Montgomery Little & Soran, P.C. Marler heads the national food safety law firm of Marler Clark, which also publishes Food Safety News.

On behalf of Stevens, they are seeking damages based on strict product liability, breach of warranties, negligence and loss of consortium. The attorneys are asking for a jury trial.

Stevens tested positive for the outbreak strain of Listeria, which was also found by the FDA on cantaloupes and equipment at the Jensen Farms packing facility, located near the Colorado-Kansas border along the Arkansas River. The Listeria was also detected on samples of cantaloupes on retail shelves in the Denver area.

Multiple outbreak strains of Listeria were also found in Canada's 2008 outbreak.

But it was the high fatality rate that caused a political storm there, forcing the appointment of an independent investigation headed by Sheila Weatherill, a public health expert.

"These individuals, mostly elderly and at risk of infections, put their faith in Canada's food safety system, expecting it to protect them," Weatherill said in a 2009 report. "Their faith, and that of all Canadians, was shaken. For all the effort of all involved, the food safety system let them down."

The report recommended 57 food safety reforms, which were accepted by the government in Ottawa.

The cantaloupe-caused Listeria outbreak in the U.S. is also attracting some political attention. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, says the outbreak shows how important it is to fully fund the FDA in order to implement the new Food Safety Moderization Act.

DeLauro says House Republicans want to slash FDA funding by millions of dollars. "This is unacceptable," she says.

"We know that it is possible to prevent these kinds of outbreaks, and to better protect American consumers, " DeLauro says. "We should not be cutting funding for the FDA, and effectively tying their hands when it comes to food safety..."

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