Food safety advocates say they are alarmed by a lack of information being disseminated about the spread of a nasty intestinal illness that has sickened nearly 400 people nationwide, including cases in two states that have been linked to prepackaged salad.
The outbreak of the rare parasite cyclospora has been reported in at least 15 states, and federal officials warned Wednesday it was too early to say that the threat was over.
But if you’re looking to find out exactly where it came from, you may be out of luck.
Health officials in Nebraska and Iowa say they’ve traced cases there to prepackaged salad, but they haven’t said which brand or where it was sold, explaining only that most if not all of it wasn’t grown locally.
The lack of information has fueled concern from consumers and others who argue that companies should be held accountable when outbreaks happen and that customers need the information about where outbreaks originated to make smart food choices.
“If you want the free market to work properly, then you need to let people have the information they need to make informed decisions,” said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in class-action food-safety lawsuits.
Heath officials in California, which provides much of the nation’s leafy green produce, said Wednesday that the state hadn’t received any reports of cyclospora cases.
“Based on the most currently available information, the leafy greens being implicated in this outbreak were not grown or processed in California,” Corey Egel, a California Department of Public Health spokesman, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Mark Hutson, who owns a Save-Mart grocery store in Lincoln, Neb., said the lack of specific brand information threatened to hurt all providers, including the good actors.
“I think there was so little information as to what was causing the problem, that people just weren’t sure what to do,” he said. “Frankly, we would prefer to have the names out there.”
Authorities said they still hadn’t determined whether the cases of cyclospora in the different states are connected.
“It’s too early to say for sure whether it’s over, and thus too early to say there’s no risk of still getting sick,” said María-Belén Moran, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Only Iowa and Nebraska officials have directly linked the outbreak in their states to a salad mix of iceberg and romaine lettuce, carrots and red cabbage. But consumers far from known outbreak areas have acknowledged it was a factor as they shopped for produce.
- Karen Brooks, has been covering the cyclospora outbreak for Reuters.
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HOBSON: But first the mystery surrounding a stomach bug outbreak that has made about 400 people sick in at least 16 states. Officials in Iowa and Nebraska say a rare parasite called cyclospora came from bagged salad, but other states have yet to name the source. Joining us now is Karen Brooks, who has covering the outbreak for Reuters. And Karen, first of all, why haven't the other states besides Iowa and Nebraska identified the source of this illness? Do they not know, or are they just not saying?
KAREN BROOKS: Well, according to the CDC it's still under investigation in the other states. Out of 16 states, we're talking more than two-thirds of the illnesses are in Nebraska and Iowa. So it stands to reason they have more to work with. And as they are telling me this morning that even they haven't identified the particular - down to the particular brand or part of the salad that's causing the outbreak, the other states are still just investigating it, according to the CDC.
HOBSON: Well, what do we know right now about exactly what it is, where it's coming from? We know that it's bagged salad, right?
BROOKS: That's right, and that's all they know. What the Nebraska health officials were able to tell me this morning was that the - all the sickened ate a prepackaged, bagged salad, the pre-washed, prepackaged, mixed salad with lettuce, cabbage and carrots in it, and there's a number of different combinations on the market, but that seems to be the one that everybody's got in common.
There's a number of brands, and on these national brands, many times the carrots come from one location, one source, the cabbage comes from another source, the lettuce comes from a third source. So what they haven't done yet, according to Nebraska, is narrow down which part of the salad may be carrying that parasite. But they are working with the FDA.
So that's why they haven't released a brand name, because they don't know the specific brand or if it's the brand that's at issue.
HOBSON: But we do know that they're saying that it was not grown locally in Nebraska and Iowa, right?
BROOKS: What they're - yeah, what they're saying is we're not talking about, say, local lettuce from a family farm that's brought to the grocery store and put in the lettuce section. You know, they're not saying it's local produce in that sense. But what they also haven't told us, and what we haven't been able to get to, is what are the farms, producing farms for these - you know, who are the suppliers for the bagged, you know, for the bagged salad.
So it may very well turn out to be a farm in one of these states that supplies it, but when they mean when they say not local produce, they mean you can still go to the grocery store, buy a farm, you know, a local farm head of lettuce, and that doesn't seem to be the problem. It seems to be something supplying these packaged salads.
HOBSON: Well, that is sort of the heart of the matter here, which is, you know, we've seen these food-borne illness outbreaks before. There was the E. coli outbreak in 2006 that was carried in spinach. There were 205 confirmed illnesses in that case, three deaths. And there were a lot of questions about what exactly was being said that was known about where this stuff was coming from.
Has anything changed about the way we track produce since then?
BROOKS: Well, what - they're working on changing things now. The short answer is not necessarily, and I'm sorry we don't have a clearer answer, but from what the CDC and the FDA say is that they are working on rules to increase the produce safety. After the outbreak of the E. coli and then in the years since then, the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law in 2011.
And what that did was that directed the FDA to set science-based standards for the safe production of harvesting of fruits and vegetables, either at foreign farms or local farms. What the FDA is now doing is taking public comment on their website, fda.gov, on a proposed rule that has many facets that they say would increase the safety of produce that's either brought into the United States for Americans' consumption or produced here in the United States.
So that's the very current, ongoing thing right now that was a direct result of, you know, 131 outbreaks associated with contaminated produce since 1996, not including this one. So that's what's happening right now, is that they're working on increasing those standards.
HOBSON: Well, and hopefully because the contaminated salad that we're talking about this time is past its due date, maybe we won't be seeing many more cases. But we'll have to keep following it. Karen Brooks has been covering the outbreak for Reuters. Karen, thank you so much.
BROOKS: My pleasure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.