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Cantaloupe warning issued after Listeria outbreak

DENVER (AP) — Health officials have issued a warning for cantaloupes from a revered melon-producing area of Colorado amid a bacteria outbreak blamed for four deaths in the state and New Mexico, troubling farmers who depend on sales of the fruit.

The warning from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came after numerous cases of a strain of Listeria were reported in six states, including at least 11 from Colorado, 10 from New Mexico, two from Texas, and one each from Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The agency said it was the first Listeria outbreak linked to cantaloupe in the United States. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration said it had not recalled the melons while it worked to locate the source.

Rocky Ford cantaloupes, named for a region along the old Santa Fe Trail about 130 miles southeast of Denver, are prized for their above-average sugar content. W.C. Fields reportedly said bald guys have "a head shaped like a Rocky Ford cantaloupe," and Lucile Ball had the melons delivered to her dressing room.

"This is really silly. You can get Listeria any place. I eat those melons every day," said Kent Lusk, a fifth-generation cantaloupe farmer from Rocky Ford.

Colorado Agriculture Commissioner John Salazar said the contamination might not be the cantaloupes, but a truck or other source. But several Colorado grocery chains pulled their supplies as a precaution, and New Mexico issued a voluntary recall. State Environmental Health Bureau inspectors were collecting cantaloupe samples from grocery stores and distributors across New Mexico for laboratory analysis.

Listeriosis is a serious infection usually caused by eating food contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes. The disease primarily affects older adults, pregnant women, newborns and adults with weakened immune systems.

Colorado health director Chris Urbina said people who are at high risk included people 60 and older, those with weakened immune systems from transplants and people with chronic diseases. Symptoms can include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea, headache, stiff neck, confusion and convulsions. Listeriosis can cause miscarriages and stillbirths.

The CDC warning advised people with cantaloupes at home to see if they came from the Rocky Ford region, and if so, not to eat the melons if they're in a vulnerable group. Health authorities asked people throwing out Rocky Ford cantaloupes to put them in a sealed plastic bag before putting them in the trash.

Several grocery stores in the Rocky Mountain region, including King Soopers, Safeway and Whole Foods, voluntarily pulled Rocky Ford cantaloupes.

"We decided out of an abundance of caution" to remove Rocky Ford melons in 142 Colorado stores, King Soopers spokeswoman Kelli McGannon said.

School cafeterias in at least two Denver-area school districts threw out their Rocky Ford melons. Denver Public Schools cafeterias had planned to highlight them Wednesday in a local foods promotion. Other Colorado products, including grass-fed beef and green chili sauce, also were on the menu, DPS spokeswoman Kristy Armstrong said.

Urbina said the Colorado health department was expecting more test results this week that might help identify the specific source of the cantaloupe sickening people.

Lusk said this year's growing season was almost over and that he doesn't believe the outbreak will have a lasting impact.

"I think there were just a few bad ones," said Adela Licano, a Chamber of Commerce board member who added that about a dozen roadside stands were still open.

"This is a major industry. We hope there is no permanent impact. We're going to get to the bottom of this," Salazar said.

The fatal cases in New Mexico included a 93-year-old man from Bernalillo County, a 61-year-old woman from Curry County and a 63-year-old man from Bernalillo County. Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said the person who died in Colorado was not being identified.

"We extend our sympathy to the families and friends of those who have died from this infection," said Colorado Health Secretary Dr. Catherine Torres. "At this time, based on the preliminary findings in Colorado, we are cautioning people who are at high risk for Listeria infection to avoid eating cantaloupe."

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Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., and Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.

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