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Listeria outbreak cause not known, but appears linked to Florida, CDC says

Across 10 states, 22 people have become ill and an Illinois resident died in the listeriosis outbreak that DNA says has a common, unidentified source

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This 2002 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a Listeria monocytogenes bacterium.

Elizabeth White, CDC via Associated Press

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating a multistate listeria outbreak that appears to be tied to Florida in hopes of identifying what food led to the illnesses. As of June 29, CDC reported that 23 people had become ill and one person had died in an outbreak that has spanned 10 states.

Of those, “20 sick people reported living in or traveling to Florida in the month before they got sick, although the significance of this is still under investigation,” the agency’s officials said of the ongoing investigation.

According to CDC, the sick people range in age from infancy to 92 years; the median age is 72. Just over half are male. Twenty-two have been hospitalized. The death was reported in Illinois. Five pregnant women got sick as part of the outbreak and one lost her baby due to listeria.

The agency said DNA fingerprinting shows “people in this outbreak likely got sick from the same food.”

Listeria outbreaks over the years have been linked to a number of foods, including deli meats and hotdogs, dairy products and produce. Recent outbreaks have been traced to soft cheeses, celery, sprouts, cantaloupe and ice cream.

And listeria isn’t the only bacteria grabbing food-related headlines this week. Food Safety News just reported that the Belgian chocolate factory Barry Callebaut has halted production at one of its factories in Belgium after detecting salmonella. The factory is said to be the largest chocolate factory in the world and the contamination was found in the lecithin, which is used to thicken chocolate.

In the Belgian case, no contaminated product is thought to have reached consumers.

The candy factory contamination highlights the fact that many types of food can be a source of illness. Experts say there are many different types of food-borne bacteria and that precautions and safety monitoring are important.

Getting listeria

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacteria that causes listeriosis. It usually comes from eating contaminated food. It primarily affects pregnant women, newborns, older adults and those who are immunocompromised. Listeria rarely sickens people in other groups.

While symptoms for pregnant women are typically mild, unborn and newborn babies can have severe illnesses. Older adults and those who are immunocompromised can develop sepsis or brain infections including meningitis and encephalitis. Sometimes listeria affects bones, joints and the chest and abdomen.

The bacteria can be found in soil, water and animal feces.

The most common symptoms are vomiting, diarrhea and fever.

Symptoms can take weeks to develop after contaminated food is consumed, which complicates tracking the source of the bacteria. Approximately 1,600 people get listeriosis in the United States each year.

According to a New York Times article, “The CDC said that people who have a higher risk of infection and who have symptoms should speak with their health care providers, especially if they have recently traveled to Florida.”

Avoiding listeria

There are preventive measures you can take to keep yourself safe, the CDC reports:

  • Only consume dairy products that have been made with pasteurized milk,
  • Avoid raw sprouts,
  • Avoid melons that have been out of the refrigerator for more than four hours after they were cut,
  • Don’t let juice from hotdogs or lunch meat get on other foods or food prep items, including surfaces and utensils. Wash hands after handling meat of any sort.
  • Those in high-risk categories should avoid cold fish that is not canned or labeled shelf stable unless it is in a cooked dish.
  • Wash hands thoroughly and avoid cross-contamination.

Florida has had 12 cases reported in the current outbreak, while New York and Massachusetts have each had two. A single case has been reported in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to the CDC outbreak map.

Forbes noted that Florida has other ongoing outbreaks right now, including a “current meningococcal disease outbreakat least 41 monkeypox cases and their current COVID-19 upswing that’s added to the state having the third most COVID-19 cases of all 50 U.S. states since the start of the pandemic.”