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Cantaloupe listeria crisis nears record; 139 sick, 29 dead

The toll from listeria-tainted cantaloupe climbed higher again on Wednesday, with 139 sickened and 29 dead in the outbreak that may be the deadliest in U.S. history, health officials reported.

In addition to the reported deaths, one pregnant woman had a miscarriage after becoming infected with any of four strains of listeria bacteria linked to whole, fresh cantaloupes from Jensen Farms of Holly, Colo. Reports of illness have been logged in 28 states.

The outbreak is the worst since a California listeria outbreak in 1985 in which contaminated Mexican-style fresh cheese caused 52 deaths, including many stillbirths, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By other accounts, the cantaloupe crisis may already have matched the adult deaths confirmed in that outbreak. In a New England Journal of Medicine analysis in 1988, investigators said the outbreak caused deaths of 28 adults and newborns and 20 stillbirths or miscarriages.

CDC officials weren't immediately available to comment on the trajectory of the outbreak, which was expected to continue to claim lives and cause illness through the fall. Listeria infections have a long incubation period, so people who ate tainted cantaloupe two months ago may only now be reporting illness, health officials said. The outbreak toll may be slowing, noted Bill Marler, a Seattle food poisoning lawyer who represents several clients sickened by the fruit. But it's still not over.

"I think the hopeful sign is that it's tapering off," he said. "But people are still in the hospital, some in critical condition. Will that number go up? Unfortunately, I think it will."

Dirty equipment, an unsanitary environment and poor storage practicescaused the outbreak at the packing site operated by Jensen Farms, the federal Food and Drug Administration found. It's not clear whether Jensen Farms officials will be required to testify in front of Congress. Members of the Energy and Commerce subcomittee had requested a hearing no later than Thursday, but no hearing has yet been scheduled.