A fatal outbreak of salmonella in the UK has been linked to watermelons by investigating health authorities.

The outbreak began in Newport in early December and has so far affected 30 people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. One person has died, although the FSA and the Health Protection Authority (HPA) stressed the victim already had serious underlying health problems.

Seventy percent of those affected are women, while more cases have been reported in the east of England than other regions. Cases caused by the same strain have also been reported in Scotland, Ireland and Germany, the HPA said.

The head of the HPA’s gastrointestinal diseases department, Bob Adak, said it was too early to be certain of the cause of the outbreak but added that “early indications suggest a number of people became unwell after eating watermelon”.

He said: “It’s important to remember the risk of becoming unwell after eating watermelon is very low. These cases only represent a very small proportion of total consumption.”

FSA director of food safety Alison Gleadle said the body was working closely with the European Commission, other countries, local authorities and the food industry to investigate the issue. She pledged to update consumers as soon as new information was available.

In the meantime, the FSA is reiterating its advice that consumers should use sound hygiene practices when handling all food, including fruit and vegetables.

The Fresh Produce Consortium said it was assisting the authorities with their investigations and stressed that fresh produce was required to meet stringent hygiene standards.

“Consumers should continue to enjoy eating fresh produce as part of a healthy diet,” said chief executive Nigel Jenney. “It is common sense for consumers to wash fruit and vegetables before eating them and to follow good hygiene practices in the home when preparing any food.”

The scare represents a blow to the fruit and vegetable industry, coming after last year’s eight-month outbreak of E.coli in the UK was linked to raw vegetables.

Sales slumped across the European Union after Spanish cucumbers were wrongly blamed for an outbreak of E.coli in Germany. A listeria outbreak in the US last year, which killed 30 people, was attributed to cantaloupe melons.

Despite these high-profile cases, food poisoning outbreaks linked to contaminated fresh produce were extremely rare in the UK, the FPC said.