Listeria outbreak deadliest since 1924

About the author
Investigations Editor

Peggy Lowe is Harvest Public Media's investigations editor, based at KCUR in Kansas City.

Tainted Colorado cantaloupes have been off store shelves for months, but the number of deaths from the listeria outbreak continue to climb.

So far, 29 people have died from the foodborne illness outbreak, the deadliest since 1924, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A USA Today story reported that another 139 people have been sickened after eating the cantaloupes from Jensen Farms near Holly, Colo. The illness first surfaced after July 31, but more people could report being sickened as the symptoms of listeria can take up to two months to develop, the newspaper reported.

The most recent large foodborne illness was in 2008 when salmonella in peanut butter and peanut paste left nine dead and 714 sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More history on outbreaks from the USA TODAY story:

 The CDC's computerized outbreak report records go back to 1973, and less formally back to 1967, says Robert Tauxe, deputy director of CDC's Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases. Prior to that there was no national system for collecting foodborne illness outbreaks. Instead, doctors have turned to going back to public health textbooks from the 1900s for accounts of outbreaks. "There are a couple that stand out, but only a couple," he says.

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, Tauxe says.

At the time, New York was the center of the national oyster trade. In this instance, oysters that had been harvested were hung underwater in oyster baskets in the harbor to keep them alive before they were shipped by train on ice across the country. But the baskets were hung near a sewage outtake pipe. The untreated sewage contained the typhoid bacteria, which infected the oysters, which were eaten raw once they arrived at their destinations. "Thanks to the miracle of refrigerated rail shipping this was one of the biggest outbreaks ever," says Tauxe. The outbreak led to the collapse of the New York oyster trade.

If you are concerned about contracting the illness, click here for some advice on cleaning cantaloupe from a University of Tennessee doctor.