The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning Americans not to eat packaged caramel-coated apples, the suspected source of a multi-state Listeria outbreak that’s killed at least four people.
As of Thursday, 28 people in 10 states had been infected with the food-borne bacteria: five in Missouri, five in New Mexico, four each in Arizona, Minnesota and Texas, two in Wisconsin and one each in California, North Carolina, Utah and Washington state.
Of 26 people hospitalized with Listeria food poisoning, five have died, and the bacteria was a definite factor in four of the deaths, the CDC reported. Fifteen of 18 Listeria patients who’ve been interviewed said they’d eaten commercially produced, packaged caramel apples before they became sick.
Nine cases involved pregnant women or newborns. Three children ages 5 to 15 have also developed meningitis, the CDC reported.
In addition to causing miscarriages and meningitis, Listeria leads to death in about 20 percent of the people who become infected. So far, no illnesses in the current outbreak have been linked to apples that aren’t caramel-coated or prepackaged, the CDC said. Nor has caramel candy been linked to any illnesses.
The CDC is urging consumers to avoid all packaged caramel apples –including those with nuts, candy sprinkles, chocolate or other toppings – until additional information is available. Officials warn that contaminated caramel apples might still be on store shelves and in consumers’ homes since they’re a traditional fall favorite.
Investigators are trying to determine the brands or types of caramel apples that are linked to the illnesses in order to find the source of the contamination. Working with the Food and Drug Administration, the CDC used DNA “fingerprinting” on bacteria from infected people to identify two outbreak clusters.
“CDC is investigating the two clusters together because one person was infected with both Listeria strains simultaneously and also because illnesses in the two clusters have occurred during a similar time period and in similar regions of the country,” the CDC reported.
The third leading cause of food poisoning death in the U.S., Listeria infects roughly 1,600 Americans each year. About nine of 10 people who develop the ailment are 65 or older, are pregnant women and their newborns or have compromised or weak immune systems.
Symptoms include fever, stiff neck, vomiting, weakness and confusion. Antibiotics can cure the infection when given promptly and can prevent infections of fetuses.
Listeria can be found in soil, water, raw milk and food made with raw milk. It’s also found in animals such as poultry and cattle and can live in food-processing facilities.
Unlike other bacteria, Listeria can grow in refrigeration temperatures.