Possible culprit identified in cyclospora outbreak that has sickened hundreds in U.S.
On Friday, U.S. health officials reported that Taylor Farms of Mexico, a division of a California-based produce supplier that distributes to national restaurants including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, shipped parasite-tainted salad mix that has sickened hundreds in Nebraska and Iowa. However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not confirm whether the same salad mix is linked to the cyclospora outbreak that has sickened at least 400 people in 16 U.S. states.
"The FDA traceback investigation found that illness clusters at restaurants were traced to a common supplier, Taylor Farms de Mexico, S. de R.L. de C.V.," the FDA said in a statement.
Those restaurants included Olive Garden and Red Lobster, operated by Darden restaurants, a confirmed a spokesman for Darden.
"The FDA's announcement today regarding Iowa and Nebraska is new information," said Rich Jeffers, communications director for Darden. "Nothing we have seen prior to this announcement gave us any reason to be concerned about the products we've received from this supplier."
The FDA's investigation did not involve salad mix packages sold in grocery stores, according to the agency, which added that it will be increasing surveillance of produce exported to the U.S. from Mexico.
State officials had said the salad mix included romaine and iceberg lettuce, along with carrots and red cabbage. A 2011 inspection found no "notable issues," the FDA said.
The firm's chairman and chief executive, Bruce Taylor, told NBC News in an email that the company has an extensive testing program in place in Mexico for both water sources and raw product.
"All our tests have been negative and we have no indication of the parasite in our product," the company’s chairman, Bruce Taylor, reported.
In the meantime, health officials stress that the contaminated produce is probably no longer available in Iowa and Nebraska, where at least 223 people have become sick from the salad mix, which has a typical shelf life of about two weeks.
"Iowa and Nebraska health authorities have said this is not an ongoing outbreak and is no longer in the food supply in those states," said Jeffers. "The health and safety of our guests is our top priority and it is completely safe to eat in our restaurants."
On June 28, 2013, the U.S. Center for Disease Control was informed that there were two confirmed cases of Cyclospora infection in Iowa residents who had become ill in June and did not have a history of international travel during the 14 days before the onset of illness.
Since then, the CDC has been working with the FDA, as well as with public health officials in numerous states to investigate the outbreak of cyclosporiasis.
Food safety experts have criticized the investigation, saying the search for the source of the rare parasite has taken too long and has not been as thorough or targeted as it should have been.
“I think it’s really a mess,” Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told NBC News. “To me it’s a situation where we need a major review.”
However, Iowa state epidemiologist, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, points out that cyclospora is difficult to detect due to its long incubation period and special testing requirements.
So far, the states that have reported illnesses include Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Wisconsin, Georgia, Illinois, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.
Cyclospora is a parasite excreted in human stool, and illnesses have been linked to consuming contaminated water or food. Symptoms of infection include prolonged diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite, vomiting and other flu-like symptoms.
In the United States, such infections are rare. However, previous cyclospora outbreaks have been tied to contaminated fresh produce that includes fruit and herbs. In 1996, raspberries imported from Guatemala were responsible for an outbreak that sickened 1,465 people in the U.S. and Canada, as well as a 1997 outbreak that made more than 1,000 people ill, according to the CDC.
SOURCE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Investigation of an Outbreak of Cyclosporiasis in the United States" (August 2, 2013).