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Deaths from tainted cantaloupe mount

A vendor arranges cantaloupe and other tropical fruits in her store in Manila, 20 April 2006.

Kai Ryssdal: We're learning more today about a slow-motion case of fatal food contamination that's spreading across the country. At least 13 people have died and more than 70 have gotten sick eating cantaloupe tainted by a bacteria called listeria. The outbreak apparently started back in late July. The company that grew the melons in question issued a recall earlier this month.

Marketplace's Alisa Roth has more.


Alisa Roth: To see how these outbreaks can affect businesses, it helps to look at previous cases.

Bob Martin is general manager at Rio Farms in King City, Calif. It's a big farm that grows a lot of vegetables -- salad greens, peppers, onions. He remembers what happened when an outbreak of E. Coli was traced to bagged spinach in 2006.

Bob Martin: There was a lot of spinach that was never even harvested, and then it came back very, very slowly.

Three weeks after the outbreak was announced, bagged spinach sales had dropped by more than 60 percent. More than a year later, sales were still down 10 percent.

And it wasn't just bagged spinach: regular spinach sales -- that's the stuff that's not pre-bagged -- fell more than 30 percent. And customers cut back on bagged salads for a while, too.

Trevor Suslow studies food safety at the University of California, Davis. He says the economic effects of a recall ripple all the way through the food chain.

Trevor Suslow: It always affects orders, and it affects sales; retailers anticipating a drop in sales start cancelling orders.

An outbreak of E. Coli several years ago that was tied to cantaloupes from Mexico caused a big drop in cantaloupe sales. But sales of Mexican honeydews were unaffected.

Produce industry officials say it's too soon after the recall of the tainted Colorado cantaloupes to know the potential damage to the melon industry this time. But the Food and Drug Administration said today it expects more illnesses -- and possibly deaths -- from the tainted cantaloupes.

I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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