DENVER (CBS4) – It’s only going to get worse. That’s the word from federal health officials on the listeria outbreak. They say more illnesses and maybe deaths could happen in the coming weeks.
Health officials also issued a stern message on Thursday. “If you don’t know where the cantaloupe came from, throw it out.”
The outbreak has caused at least 72 illnesses and 16 deaths in 18 states. It’s the deadliest food outbreak the U.S. has seen in more than a decade.
The source of the outbreak is Jensen Farms in Holly, located in southeastern Colorado.
As the number of illnesses and deaths continue to climb, so do the number of lawsuits, including two in Colorado. Attorneys expect that number to grow nationwide, predicting up to 30 in the next few weeks alone.
Gayla Graham remembers her father, William Beach.
“He was a man with a great sense of humor and he loved his family,” Graham said.
Graham said he was healthy, even at 87 years old, until he ate cantaloupe from Jensen Farms. He died Sept. 1.
“We received a call from the coroner that said, ‘We’ve been contacted by the hospital … your father died of listeria.'”
Lawsuits from across the country are pouring in against Jensen Farms.
“We feel that the contaminated product has been removed,” Devin Koontz with the Food and Drug Administration said.
The FDA said their investigation into Jensen Farms is ongoing. They’re looking for the root of the outbreak — if it happened in the fields, in the processing phase, or while cantaloupe was being stored before it went to market.
“The earliest point we find it in the chain from the field to the truck, that’s going to be the factor that puts us in the right direction,” Koontz said.
Jensen Farms wouldn’t comment on their mounting legal problems. They say they’re cooperating with the investigation. Victims say the farm has plenty to answer to.
“We didn’t even know what listeria was,” Graham said.
Graham’s lawsuit calls for no less than $75,000 in damages. An attorney says potential damages from the cases could exceed millions of dollars, depending on the results of the FDA’s investigation.
The FDA says one of the main reason more cases are expected is because of the incubation period for listeria.
“Most germs have an incubation period of maybe one to four days from the time you get exposed to the time you get sick. But with listeria it’s a little bit different. It’s anywhere from three to 70 days, with the average incubation being about 30 days,” CBS4 Medical Editor Dr. Dave Hnida said. “That makes it very confusing in terms of diagnosis. People will not even think back to having come in contact or having consumed cantaloupe. Then they wind up getting ill down the line.”