About 800 cases of listeria are found in the United States each year, according to CDC, and there usually are three or four outbreaks. Most of these are traced to deli meat and soft cheeses, where listeria is most common.
Produce has rarely been the culprit, but federal investigators say they have seen more produce-related listeria illnesses in the past two years. It was found in sprouts in 2009 and celery in 2010.
While most healthy adults can consume listeria with no ill effects, it can kill the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It is also dangerous to pregnant women because it easily passes through to the fetus. Dr. Tauxe of the CDC said the type of listeria linked to the cantaloupes is not one that is commonly associated with pregnancy-associated illnesses, however. State and federal health authorities have not definitively linked any miscarriages, stillbirths or infant illnesses to the current outbreak.
Symptoms of listeria include fever and muscle aches, often with other gastrointestinal symptoms. Victims often become incapacitated and unable to speak.
Debbie Frederick said her mother knew something was wrong when her father, 87-year-old William Thomas Beach, collapsed at his home in Mustang, OK and couldn't get up. He died a few days later, on Sept. 1. The family later learned his death was linked to eating the cantaloupe and sued Jensen Farms.
"First you just kind of go into shock," said Frederick. "Then it settles in that he would still be alive if this hadn't happened. It's a life, for what?"