|The FDA has advised consumers not to eat the recalled cantaloupes and to throw them away [AP]
At least 13 people have died due to an outbreak of listeria in the United States, health officials have said.
The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday that 18 states have reported 72 infections, linked to tainted cantaloupes, a type of melon, from one of the four strains of listeria involved in the outbreak.
Four of the deaths were reported in New Mexico, two in Colorado, two in Texas in one each in Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
State and local officials are investigating a further three deaths which could be linked to the outbreak.
All of the illnesses started on or after July 31.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that it had found Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterial strain found in the cantaloupes, in samples of melons taken from a Denver-based farm.
Jensen Farms, the company in question, recalled all of its Rocky Ford cantaloupes on September 14 in response to the outbreak. The fruit had been shipped to at least 17 states from July 29 to September 10.
The FDA has advised consumers not to eat the recalled cantaloupes and to throw them away.
Listeria bacteria thrive in low temperatures. Outbreaks are usually associated with delicatessen meats, unpasteurised cheeses and smoked refrigerated seafood products, rather than fresh produce.
Listeria infections can be particularly dangerous for elderly people, pregnant women and patients with weakened immune systems, the CDC says.
Pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get listeriosis, while those with AIDS are 300 times more likely to get the infection than healthy people, the CDC said on its website.
This is the deadliest listeria outbreak since a 1998 multistate outbreak involving contaminated hot dogs and delicatessen meats, which killed 32 people and infected 101 others.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a health advocacy group, said the current outbreak underscored the need for the FDA to issue guidelines and regulations to help keep pathogens out of produce.
According to the group, melons have caused at least 36 outbreaks of foodborne disease since 1990, although this is the first attributed to listeria.
The death toll from this outbreak now exceeds that of the 2009 salmonella outbreak from tainted peanuts. That outbreak killed nine people and infected more than 700 others in the United States.